Pigs in space


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Today I have an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “No liftoff for these space flights of fancy.” It is essentially a more detailed reworking of my rant on the John Batchelor Show on July 30.

My point is that the federal space program mandated by Congress, the Space Launch System (SLS), is never going to go anywhere, and is nothing but pork that should be cut as fast as possible. (See my essay from November 2011 on how NASA and the federal government can better use this money to get more accomplished in space, for less.)

The comments to the article have generally been positive and in agreement. Those who disagree mostly question the $14 billion cost per launch that I claim SLS will cost. That number comes from John Strickland’s very detailed analysis of what it will cost to build, complete, and operate SLS. However, it doesn’t require much thoughtful analysis to realize that this number is not unreasonable.

First there is the launch rate. NASA has always stated that after the first unmanned test launch in 2017 the next (and first manned flight) will not occur until 2021. They have also admitted that the next flight will not occur until 2025.

That’s a launch rate of once every four years. In a fantasy world they might be able to increase the rate after that third flight, but I doubt it.

Next there is the operational expense. Since SLS is mandated to use as much shuttle materials and infrastructure as possible, it is likely that those operational expenses will be very comparable. The shuttle cost about $4 billion per year to maintain and fly. SLS will require as many employees at NASA to keep up its systems, even if it isn’t flying. Even if that “standing army” of employees can be trimmed during the off years when the rocket isn’t being launched, you can’t reduce them that much. Thus, estimating an annual operating expense of $3 billion for SLS is not unreasonable. Multiply that by four and you get $12 billion spent for operations for each launch.

Then there is the development cost. We are spending $3 billion a year right now to develop this system, and have been since 2010. Let’s say the development takes 10 years, from 2011 to 2020, which is just before the first manned flight. At $3 billion per year that totals $30 billion. Let’s also be generous to SLS and assume that the system ends up operating as long as the shuttle, about 32 years. At one flight every four years that would produce a total of 8 flights. Divide $30 billion by 8 and you end up assigning each flight about $3.75 billion of the development cost per flight.

Thus, using this quick analysis I find that the actual cost per flight is not $14 billion, but almost $16 billion!

Note also that, based on NASA’s track record, it is perfectly reasonable to expect any of these estimates to be on the low side. Think for example of the cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope: It was originally budgeted at $1 billion. NASA now estimates the telescope will cost almost $9 billion to launch.

Obviously, you can come up with many other totals, depending on how you play with these numbers. Strickland’s analysis is more detailed and carefully done, and is probably going to be more accurate.

The bottom line, however, never changes. SLS is ungodly expensive, far more costly than any previous NASA project. It will not get us anywhere.

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7 comments

  • wodun

    So nearly NASA’s yearly budget for one launch…

  • Pzatchok

    If all you plan is a launch every year or so I can see that being close to Nasa’s yearly budget.
    They have little else going on other than maintenance and monitoring of already existing systems.

  • Pzatchok

    Since its one launch every 4 years in the present plan than a 1/4 or the NASA budget is reasonable for NASA.

  • FrankD

    SLS is a waste of time and money. We built the great Saturn 5 in less time and it has already been proven. Dust off the blueprints, design some modern avionics and lets go fly. I work on ISS and am appalled at what I see NASA doing on a daily basis.

  • Pzatchok

    We actually do not have the blue prints for the Saturn launch vehicles.

    Each part that was contracted out was individually hand made. In many cases if something didn’t fit right things were changed on the fly with just and engineers approval and sign off. No records were kept or made.

    A fuel pump on one rocket might not fit the next rocket.

  • Kelly Starks

    The Saturns weer not that well made, and much is to obsolete to use now (1960’s electronics?!!) though the engines weer good, adn making new hulls are easy, so folks have based designs for big boosters on them before (like the Jarvis booster [http://www.astronautix.com/lvs/jarvis.htm] named after the companies astrounaut Gregory Jarvis who died no the Challenger [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Jarvis].).

    You need to remember little of the $30B to develop a booster is nessisary for the booster. Hence why commercially developed boosters cost about 1/4th as much. But of course voter support comes from the “waste” spread aronud the country. Otherwise losing all US space capabilities dosen’t really niterest the public much.

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