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NASA IG: SLS/Orion cost per launch equals $4.1 billion and is “unsustainable”

The real cost of SLS and Orion

At a House hearing today the NASA Inspector General Paul Martin stated unequivocally that the cost of NASA’s SLS rocket, Orion capsule, and the associated ground systems is about $4.1 billion per launch, which made the entire program, in his words, “unsustainable.”

Appearing before a House Science Committee hearing on NASA’s Artemis program, Martin revealed the operational costs of the big rocket and spacecraft for the first time. Moreover, he took aim at NASA and particularly its large aerospace contractors for their “very poor” performance in developing these vehicles.

Martin said that the operational costs alone for a single Artemis launch—for just the rocket, Orion spacecraft, and ground systems—will total $4.1 billion. This is, he said, “a price tag that strikes us as unsustainable.” With this comment, Martin essentially threw down his gauntlet and said NASA cannot have a meaningful exploration program based around SLS and Orion at this cost.

Martin’s testimony confirms what was contained in his November 2021 report, from which I took the graphic above. The article at the link details at length Martin’s testimony today, which was amazingly harsh. He also said that

NASA is obscuring costs that it is spending on the Artemis program and that, in aggregate, his office believes NASA will spend $93 billion from 2012 to 2025 on the Artemis program. “Without NASA fully accounting for and accurately reporting the overall costs of current and future Artemis missions, it will be much more difficult for Congress and the administration to make informed decisions about NASA’s long-term funding needs—a key to making Artemis a sustainable venture,” Martin said.

Martin has merely confirmed what I have been writing now for more than a decade, and documented at great length in my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space. In fact, let me quote from one of my earliest essays on this subject on Behind the Black, from 2011:

Budgeted right now at about $3 billion per year, this program could cost between $18 to $62 billion (depending on who you ask), and is not expected to make its first manned flight until 2021.

What makes the SLS program very worrisome to me is that it is very similar to NASA’s numerous previous efforts to replace the space shuttle, all of which never flew, and all of which cost the taxpayer billions of dollars. For example, NASA spent approximately $9 billion trying to develop the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets, only to have the entire program canceled in 2010 by Barack Obama. Sadly, this stillborn program is only one of many like it in the past three decades. In each case, the program was canceled before NASA could complete it.

In my 2017 policy paper I carefully documented the cost of SLS and Orion, based on actual Congressional appropriations, at being about $43 billion through 2021. That number is now higher, and will easily exceed $50 billion. Martin said in his testimony that the real cost might actually end up as high as $93 billion.

In 2013 during one of my John Batchelor show appearances [mp3] I was even more blunt in my criticism not only of SLS but of all of Washington:

What both those parties in Congress and in the administration are really doing is faking a goal for the purpose of justifying pork to their districts, because none of the proposals they’re making — both the asteroids or the moon — are going to happen.

If the growing low cost and far more effective options coming from private commercial space were not now available, I would fully expect Congress, the White House, NASA, and the big space companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to continue this dishonest shell game and simply — after a bit of uproar — replace SLS at some point with a new fake rocket program, costing more billions over decades and accomplishing nothing.

Commercial space however has changed this political equation drastically. Congress, the White House, NASA, and the big space contractors can no longer play that game. Instead, the success of the new private companies is making their failures plain for all to see.

Assuming the entire world economy does not collapse in an insane war in the next few years, we have hope that this new competition coming from capitalism will force the end of such wasteful boondoggles at NASA as SLS, replaced by a real private space industry, getting more accomplished for less in far less time.

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Conscious Choice cover

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18 comments

  • Jeff Wright

    This rocket has a much lower part count than Starship. Boeing’s management needs the axe.

  • Col Beausabre

    Remember, folks, this was the “cheap” and “easy” approach because it would use “proven” technology and components, some of which we had “on the shelf”.

  • Ron Desmarais

    Jeff Wright, You can put lipstick on a pig but it is still a pig. Time to slaughter this pig.

  • James Stephens

    If it hasn’t happened already it’s time for NASA to end any dependency it may have had have on this turkey. That should have happened when it became apparent private space could fill the bill. Who keeps voting to keep this thing funded anyway and why? The problems which beset SLS are illustrative of the larger problem in Washington DC. That’s what I find so interesting.

    “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” – Mr. Carlson, WKRP In Cincinnati.

  • pawn

    Just remember that without Musk, one man, this would be our best effort at reviving manned space.

    Disgusting and disturbing.

  • Col Beausabre

    James Stephens – Look up how many states and congressional districts have subcontractors.

    One of the greatest comic episodes of all time https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiSkjcl9yW4

    which brings to mind that you can at least eat a turkey.

    “To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It’s a ritual sacrifice – with pie” – Anya in the Thanksgiving episode on Buffy

  • James Stephens

    I have, it was a rhetorical question. The answer is practically everybody. That’s the problem. That thing is going to be foisted on NASA like a fruitcake at Christmas.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Col, that is THE greatest episode.

    I remember watching it live as a kid. I could not stop laughing for an hour.

  • wayne

    Dragnet se3 ep01:
    “Public Affairs” With Howard Hesseman (2-27-40 to 1-29-22)
    https://youtu.be/dKSuatfltX0
    25:35

    “Friday and Gannon are invited to sit on the panel to defend the police department……”

  • Col Beausabre

    Mr Bourbon, I laughed so hard, I fell off the couch and was literally rolling on the floor laughing my you know what off (ROFLMAO). My girlfriend had collapsed into the couch, staring at the ceiling and laughing uncontrollably. For the rest of the evening, we’d look at each other and start giggling. The next morning, I said to my classmates at the Armor Career Course, “Did you see….” That’s all I got out as everyone started laughing.

    This the greatest practical joke in TV history. On the BBC’s deadly serious “Panorama” program (Think “60 Minutes” but more so)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXvou6RcWzM

    Questions were asked in Parliament the next day, It should be noted the item in question was quite exotic in Britain in the Fifties

  • Jeff Wright

    And, on top of everything else, while driving to work tonight, my serpentine belt came lose AGAIN in front of the repair shop that dealt with this and a new water pump last time not a bloody month ago. Walked a mile to work. I should have let that car go…but I am sentimental, as it was my late Dad’s. I lost my parents in my 30s. I wanted an MSFC I could be proud of. I can’t even keep my car running. I give up.

  • ““As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” – Mr. Carlson, WKRP In Cincinnati.”

    Well, there was the F-14.

    “Oh, my God! The humanity!” Les Nesmond, reporting.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Armor course at FKKY?

    I know exactly where that was.

    Done some walking around there. It was Misery and Agony.

  • Star Bird

    I would like to see them launch Democrats into Outer Space

  • MAGA_Ken

    What I don’t understand is that surely the SLS is over the authorized amount + 30% spending threshold that will REQUIRE Congress to re-authorize the project. But apparently that can be just waved off as a no biggie.

  • Col Beausabre

    Mr Bourbon – You forgot Heartbreak

  • sippin_bourbon

    Not at all. There was a lot of Heartbreak.

    On top of that, my father was there in the early 60s. He was FA. Oldest sis was born there.

  • Edward

    From the Are Technica article:

    Five years ago, a senior NASA official told Ars that the space agency would like to get its operational costs for a single mission a year down to $2 billion or less. Another source at the time said the internal goal was $1.5 billion.

    With only one launch per year, how are we ever supposed to get anything done in space? At $1.5 billion to put 100 tons in orbit, $7,500 per pound is not much improvement in the past half century’s launch costs, and it is much worse than Falcon’s per-pound costs.

    In reality, no one should expect Congress to care about the high cost of the SLS and Orion program. The legislature created the programs this way [“that the cost-plus contracts that NASA had been using to develop that combined SLS-Orion system worked to the contractors’ rather than NASA’s advantage”].

    But it isn’t NASA’s fault that SLS is being worked on cost-plus contracts, it is Congress’s fault:

    House and Senate members told NASA to use “cost-plus” contracts, which ensure that companies involved in the development and operation of these systems receive all of their costs, plus a fee. This tends to disincentivize timely work completed within a set budget. (Remarkably, NASA was told to continue using cost-plus contracts even after the development program.)

    As Robert wrote in his post, above: “Martin has merely confirmed what I have been writing now for more than a decade, and documented at great length in my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space.”

    Martin had suggested that the cost-plus structure resulted in an “inefficiency of the program and its large aerospace contractors,” to quote the article (but not Martin).

    Did I mention that it is Congress’s fault that SLS is being worked on cost-plus contracts?

    In fact, key members of Congress have been critical of NASA every time the agency has tried to break free of cost-plus contracting and use a more commercial approach through fixed-price contracts. That congressional skepticism has persisted even as the commercial approach has borne fruit.

    “Key members of Congress.”

    It seems that NASA is happier to commercialize space than are our elected representatives. Does this mean that the people at NASA would like to get more done in space? Yes. NASA’s scientists and engineers have had great dreams and ideas ever since the 1960s but have been held back by bureaucracy, lack of Congressional funding (centralized governmental control), and the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of cost-plus projects.

    Blue Origin may have suffered from hiring people who were comfortable with working under such an inefficient and ineffective system, which would explain their poorly planned BE-4 engine project. It seems to be a difference between Blue Origin and SpaceX, which does not tolerate inefficiencies and works hard to be effective — like any good free market capitalist company. In the 1960s, NASA culture was similar to today’s SpaceX culture, a “can-do” spirit. As Berger’s article tells us, NASA is willing to break free of the inefficiencies (good news), but its funding source, Congress, is not (bad news).

    The efficiencies of commercial space will soon allow us to do a lot more in space for a lot less money than our government programs have done over the past half century. Falcon, New Glenn, Neutron, and other launchers can put a lot of equipment into space for much lower prices than have been paid over the past few decades, and Starship should easily do more and cost less than the Space Shuttle had been designed (but failed) to do. The trend toward small satellites and other spacecraft makes those items less expensive than similar items in the past.

    Other than communication satellite companies, commercial space only got its start two decades ago and — despite heavy competition and opposition from government (Congress and various agencies) — is already costing less and is ramping up to doing more than government-space costs and does.

    Two decades ago, the X-Prize and Scaled Composites showed that free market capitalism could do what only national governments had done before. Since then, dozens of companies have become so successful and prosperous that now there are hundreds of companies attempting to also be just as successful. Fourteen years ago, investors were so afraid of the competition with government-space that Kistler Aerospace couldn’t find the outside investment to meet the first milestone on its COTS contract, but now investors are so eager to invest in space that SPACs are being funded on speculation that they will find a space company to invest in.

    [Martin’s] office believes NASA will spend $93 billion from 2012 to 2025 on the Artemis program.

    How much was spent on Artemis before 2012? Table 1 in Robert’s 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space, shows that $6.5 billion was spent on Orion from 2005 through 2011. Table 2 shows that in 2011 $1.8 billion was spent on SLS, and $5.5 billion was spent on Ares, the cancelled predecessor to SLS. Overall, development of the Artemis program will cost more than $100 billion and take about 20 years.

    Starship will likely cost less than $10 billion to develop in eight or nine years, as it started in 2016, eleven years later than Artemis.

    Starship will put 100 tons into orbit for (order of magnitude) $20 million, and may be able to launch more than daily from each launchpad. SLS will put 100 tons into orbit annually for $1.5 billion — or $2 billion, or $4.1 billion, or more, depending.

    Clearly, free market capitalism and commercial space are so much more efficient and effective than government-space that it will win the competition, because government is critical of efficiency and effectiveness — or at least key members of Congress are. Capitalism in Space is right: capitalism in space is the future, because by necessity it is efficient and effective, with incentives to become even more so.

    As Berger wrote:

    At least it answers the question of where congressional priorities lie.

    The difference between commercial free market capitalist companies and central-control government-space is stark. In the first half century of aeronautics, free market capitalism had developed commercial aviation, advanced aircraft (almost as advanced as today’s), and supersonic flight. two decades later, these same companies had put man onto the Moon, although with government funding. In the half century since, government-space has spent similar amounts of money as the Moon landings cost, but it has reverted to low Earth orbit and has plans to return to the Moon in the next decade, as Robert wrote: “costing more billions over decades and accomplishing nothing.” The first decade of the space age made it look as though we would progress similarly to aviation, but progress was not the government priority.

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