sNASA’s Space Launch System is costing 320 times more than NASA’s commercial space program.


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Another opinion: NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is costing 320 times more than NASA’s commercial space program.

In other words, having NASA build a rocket and capsule makes no financial sense. At these numbers, SLS cannot survive.

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8 comments

  • Joe

    From the linked to article:

    “The total NASA funding for the CCDev2 program was around $270 million. That’s $270 million for the development of four different vehicles to bring people into orbit.”

    Where do these numbers come from? Not anywhere in an actual budget. The amount to be budgeted for “Commercial” Crew this year is over $500 Million and the total is expected to be in the range of $2 Billion. Additionally there will be only two vehicles (if the program is successful).

    I do not care if you want to propagandize “Commercial” Crew, but you and the author of the article to which you link should at least present accurate budget estimates to make your case.

  • wodun

    Ok so $2b that helps 4 companies although only 2 will survive. Part of that $2b doesn’t get paid out until crew is delivered and assuming there will be a success, they will get more money every year when they ferry astronauts to the ISS but that $2b represents the development costs. What will the development costs of SLS be? It doesn’t matter how much is being spent on commercial crew or SLS this year or last year, what matters is what the total development costs will be.

    The contractors are also paying development costs so the total cost to.develop commercial crew is higher than what NASA will pay. Looks like a good deal for the tax payers. It will be interesting to compare to total public and private development costs for both programs and contrast them with wich is better for the tax payer.

    Then we can take a look at operating costs, of course.

  • Hey Joe,

    These are his numbers and his conclusions. I merely provided a link to his column.

    Still, your point is well taken. However, even at $2 billion for the entire commercial crew contract, that is still tiny compared to the cost of Orion and SLS. And commercial space is also getting us several different crew vehicles, not just one. I ain’t propagandizing when I note this obvious difference, I am stating facts.

    Why do you love SLS so much? I am sure the engineering is wonderful, but the cost is horrifying, and it will produce so few launches for that cost that in the end it will never accomplish anything. We simply can’t afford it, and we need to find alternatives that cost less. To me, the options offered by the commercial companies seem worthwhile to explore, and support.

  • Joe

    Hi Robert,

    The subject under discussion was a supposed comparison of Orion/SLS cost to those of “Commercial” Crew. You (supposedly based on the source article) stated – “NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is costing 320 times more than NASA’s commercial space program.”

    However even the (seriously flawed) source article did not claim that. It stated – “Compared to the SpaceX CCDev2 program, the Space Launch System that Orion is a part of is expected to cost $38 billion. Between $17 to $22 billion is needed just for development. That is 80 times the cost of the development of four manned crew vehicles by the private sector, i.e. 320 times more per vehicle.” A difference of a factor of four.

    To reach its conclusions the source article had to:
    – Underestimate the cost of “Commercial” Crew by a factor of approximately eight.
    – Overestimate the performance of “Commercial” Crew by a factor of two.
    – Overestimate the cost of Orion/SLS by a factor of two (the $38 Billion figure – derived from a year old article – was circulated while the Obama Administration was trying to convince the Congress to abandon the Orion/SLS. The actual projected budget is more like $19 Billion.).

    So 8 x 2 x 2 = 32. Your factor of 320 for the whole program becomes a factor of 10 vehicle system to vehicle system.

    However, we are still comparing apples to oranges:
    – “Commercial” Crew is LEO only.
    – Orion/SLS is primarily for BEO.

    There are considerably more challenges in a BEO system. If a detailed head to head comparison of a “Commercial” Crew like system for BEO were made to Orion/SLS it would be considerably less than a factor of ten. In fact, Orion/SLS might prove to be the cheaper alternative. I suspect the results of such an analysis would be a “wash”, except that you would have to start all over again to go with “Commercial” Crew (complete with much higher technical risk – the probability of cost over runs and throwing away all the sunk costs for Orion/SLS).

    SLS is a booster, Orion is a payload. I do not “love SLS so much”. In fact I am a supporter of the Side Mount SDHLV configuration for the booster. Based on previous comments I would guess you are against it as well, but rather than my assuming that – why don’t you tell me what your opinion is and why?

  • Kelly Starks

    Doesn’t anyone find it unlikely that the commercials could develop craft with similar capabilities at hundreds of times less cost then a NASA contract? 4 times less is the norm for a commercial. Rutan or the Skunkworks at their best maybe over 30 times for a commercial contract. So hundreds of times cheaper, by start ups with no experience or legacy to build on?? Yeah get real.

    Caviet Emptor folks.

  • DougSpace

    Actually, comparing apples to apples, it is more like 1/3 the cost. This is based upon the NASA study indicating how much the Falcon 9 cost using the SAA approach versus had the FAR approach been used. Still, 1/3 the cost would either:
    – cost us less or
    – allow us to do more.
    I vote for the second!

    I believe that the Falcon Heavy is likely to be successful given that it is so related to the 3x successful Falcon 9. Given that two Falcon Heavies provide about the same payload as a Saturn V, I see no point in spending the whatever more for the SLS.

    The solution is:
    – Falcon Heavy,
    – “Lunar COTS”,
    – A single lunar lander (both cargo & crew),
    – Telerobots,
    – A cis-lunar infrastructure based upon lunar polar ice, and
    – Providing enough fuel (at L1) and water shielding for missions to Phobos/Mars.

    IMHO

  • Joe

    Doug,

    “Actually, comparing apples to apples, it is more like 1/3 the cost. This is based upon the NASA study indicating how much the Falcon 9 cost using the SAA approach versus had the FAR approach been used.”

    Two points:
    – We are comparing the cost of a BEO System to an LEO System and the BEO requirements are significantly higher. Unless the adoption of a new management structure allows the reduction of redundancy requirements (for safety) and/or the associated certification testing, then the BEO vehicle will be significantly more expensive.
    – SAA and FAR are ways of managing a program. There is nothing about those approaches that makes them applicable only to “Commercial” companies like Space X. If it is acceptable for a “Commercial” company to use the allegedly cheaper approach for BEO, then it should be acceptable for the Orion/SLS contractors as well and they would have the same (rather extreme) cost savings available to them.

    “I believe that the Falcon Heavy is likely to be successful given that it is so related to the 3x successful Falcon 9.”

    The Falcon Heavy is scheduled to use a new upper stage and its “three barrel” first stage needs a cross feeding system that is new and rather complex. The same sort of argument could be used for the SLS – that it is based on components (SSME, tankage, SRB, etc.) from the Shuttle Program that flew successfully over 130 times. I would not make either of those arguments because both or over simplified.

    “– A single lunar lander (both cargo & crew),
    – Telerobots,
    – A cis-lunar infrastructure based upon lunar polar ice, and
    – Providing enough fuel (at L1) and water shielding for missions to Phobos/Mars.”

    It will probably surprise you to learn that I actually agree with these points, with the one exception that I would place development of cis-lunar space as a priority before “missions to Phobos/Mars”

  • Kelly Starks

    >Actually, comparing apples to apples, it is more like 1/3 the cost. This is based upon the NASA
    > study indicating how much the Falcon 9 cost using the SAA approach versus had the FAR
    > approach been used…

    That study was as much a joke asthere study that “proved” ice falling on the shuttle couldn’t damage it, and “its beyond current technology” to build reusable space launch craft.

    The reality of NASA budget history is that a booster (from 25 to 180 tons lift) costs about $30 billion in normal NASA contracting methods. Commercials take about $7B. Musk spent about $300M for his two boosters. That’s 1/100th, not 1/3rd.

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