Bridenstine: SLS costs less than $2 billion per launch

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During an agency meeting where the new manager of NASA’s manned program officially took charge, administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed disagreement with a Trump administration estimate of $2 billion for each SLS launch.

The OMB letter used “over $2 billion” as the estimated cost of an SLS launch, arguing that is $1.5 billion more than a commercial launch. The $2 billion figure has been widely cited since then as an official cost estimate.

Bridenstine was asked about it today, and disagreed. “I do not agree with the $2 billion number. It is far less than that. I would also say the number comes way down when you buy more than one or two. I think in the end we’re going to be in the $800-900 million range.” NASA has bought only two SLS launches so far and negotiations are just starting on the third and fourth, he added. [emphasis mine]

Well that solves everything! SLS will only cost a little less than a billion per launch, not two billion. Any fool can see this is clearly competitive with the $100 million that SpaceX charges for each Falcon Heavy launch. And you’d have to do two Falcon Heavy launches to match what SLS can do in one launch. Obviously we want to buy SLS! It’s what any Washington lawmaker or bureaucrat would clearly conclude.

The article notes that NASA has only “bought two SLS launches” but fails to explain why. This is all that Congress has appropriated. NASA is negotiating with Boeing to build as many as ten more, but as far as I know, the authorization from lawmakers has not yet been given to do so.

But then, why not? We are no longer ruled by our elected officials, but by the unelected bureaucrats who live high on the hog in their plush Washington digs.


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  • Terry Pickett

    SLS is a shameful waste of money. Taxpayer money should be spent wisely not wasted like this. Falcon Heavy can do the job for much less. Someday, people will not tolerate this.

  • Edward

    From the first link: “I do not agree with the $2 billion number. It is far less than that. I would also say the number comes way down when you buy more than one or two. I think in the end we’re going to be in the $800-900 million range.

    That is an estimated cost “in the end” but not necessarily a price applicable to launch Europa Clipper on SLS. Perhaps the $2 billion is more appropriate for that launch, and the savings could easily be $1.5 billion to go commercial.

    I did not see Bridenstine provide justification for his $800 to 900 million range for the launch of each SLS, other than purchasing in bulk reduces rocket purchase prices. This makes me wonder whether his estimate includes keeping a ground crew, cost of operations, and miscellaneous overhead expenses, or whether he is expressing only the price he suspects that Boeing will charge for the rocket. The context suggests the latter, as he mentions the bulk purchase and not other factors that may cost less than the OMB estimated.

    Either way, the cost of each rocket is still unknown, as Boeing has yet to work through all the manufacturing methods for an SLS production line.

    Terry Pickett wrote: “Someday, people will not tolerate this.

    One of the important points of the second link that Robert gave is that We the People do not have this say, anymore.

    There have been numerous stories in the past two years of federal employees in different agencies acting to sabotage Trump Administration initiatives, merely because they disagreed with them. This trend is very dangerous, and signals a change that is not good for any free and democratic society.

    It seems that the people we elect have less and less say in how our government is run. If they have less say then we have less say — our elections have less meaning. We only have a say when our elected officials do as we direct them, but if the country is not run by our elected representatives then when We the People talk to our representatives, it is more like talking to an inanimate object than to a person with control over government actions. We may be stuck with wasteful spending, whether or not we tolerate it.

    According to Robert’s second link, this is what has led to the coup attempt by the bureaucrats against the U.S. president. The bureaucrats behave as though they are the ones running the country and setting policy and as though our representatives are mere figureheads, appeasing the populace into complacency through the sham that we have control through our representatives.

    This is the importance of the impending Inspector General report, due early next week. If he reports that the bureaucracy is out of control, then we have a chance of recovering our liberty and our control over our own government, and soon our intolerance of the current status can return us back to our great American experiment of self government of past decades, when costs, budgets, deficits, and national debt mattered. If the report says that everything is copacetic, then self government ends not with a bang but with a bureaucrat.

  • pzatchok

    What about ALL the cash spent on it until now?

    At 2 billion a launch we would have to but a LOT more to recoup the cash we have already spent.

    At 2 billion a launch I want free rockets and launches until we get it all back.

  • Col Beausabre

    The cash spent up to date is irrelevant. Look up “Sunk Cost Fallacy”

    So Bridenstine may be talking “marginal costs” (essentially the vehicle, fuel and personnel) to do one mission rather than including “fixed costs” which would include amortization of all the costs associated with the program, to include development, since day one. Of course, how you allocate fixed costs is not locked is a matter of debate with the accounting community – there’s even a discipline called “Cost Accounting” whose primary focus is this question – and allows for manipulation.

    Example, you think fixed costs for a program will be $8B, each launch will cost $1B in marginal costs and you think you will have 2 launches which would give you a fully amortized cost per launch of $5B. But, if you think you’ll have eight launches, fully amortized cost per launch is $2B. Add in a profit of $0.1B per launch and you charge the customer $2.1B. Assuming you set up your pricing to fully recover your costs by launch 8, if you get a launch 9, you should drop your price as you’ve already recovered your fixed costs and only need to cover the marginal ones, so maybe you drop your price to $1.2B to give you $0.2B profit launch 9 to n.

    So what are your underlying assumptions in regards to fixed and marginal costs and sales ?

  • Scott M.

    I don’t know if our illustrious host has seen this yet, but there’s an interesting Eric Berger article on how good it is to be the head of Roscosmos:

    TL;DR is ‘It’s good ta be da king!’

  • In the town hall, both Bridenstine and Loverro
    stated that, SLS is the plan for now but that, as commercial options come along, they would consider those. I just received back a reply from Loverro indicating that he would look over my website. I specifically mentioned the “tipping point concept”:
    I think that it would do well for space advocates to join together behind a specific tipping point criteria in which decision makers without a dog in the race would transition from support for the SLS yo a public-private partnership with Space (Starship) so that, when Starship achieves orbit there will already be momentum behind supporting it and not saying that SLS should continue as a back-up.

  • Edward

    Col Beausabre,
    I was my impression that the OMB did not include development cost in its $2 billion estimate, but they may have included other program costs. I suspect that Bridenstine did not include as many other costs associated with an SLS launch as the OMB did.

    The $2 billion number was specific to the Europa Clipper mission and does not take into account efficiencies that will undoubtedly be incorporated into the SLS program as time goes on. Bridenstine makes the assumption that enough SLS launches will occur to find these efficiencies. However, even at Bridenstine’s lower cost estimate, SLS will be twice as expensive as other alternatives, which may have their development costs factored into their launch prices.

    You wrote: “I think that it would do well for space advocates to join together behind a specific tipping point criteria …

    I think that is a good idea. I am not convinced that the point that you advocate is the correct tipping point, but you make a good argument for it. Although I would prefer seeing more performance from a Starship before abandoning the alternative system, your tipping point would save at least a billion dollars — probably much more — in squandered money and could redirect the talents at NASA, and its contractors, into a better direction sooner.

    Sadly, I doubt that policy-makers and decision-makers in Washington, DC are willing to give up SLS so easily, so I suspect that we will remain in a race to the Moon between commercial space companies and the government, with much squandered money and talent on the government and contractor side.

  • pzatchok

    I can’t believe we spent 40 billion dollars on SLS Orion and now Clipper and they are still going to charge us 2 billion per flight.

    And we developed nothing new. Not one bit of new tech that was not already in the industrial pipeline.

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