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In a letter to Congress on August 27, 2019, NASA’s inspector general has called for Congress to immediately abandon the legal requirement it imposed on Europa Clipper to fly on NASA’s SLS rocket, thereby allowing NASA to choose any commercial rocket to launch the spacecraft.
The letter [pdf] is amazingly blunt.
[W]e write to highlight an issue at NASA that we believe requires immediate action by Congress. Language in NASA’s appropriation legislation requires the Agency to launch a satellite to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 2023 on the yet-to-be-completed Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. However, because of developmental delays and, more significantly, NASA’s plans to use the first three SLS rockets produced for its Artemis lunar program, an SLS will not be available until 2025 at the earliest. Consequently, if completed on its projected schedule, the approximately $3 billion dollar Europa spacecraft (known as “Europa Clipper”) will need to be stored for at least 2 years at a cost of $3 to $5 million per month until an SLS becomes available. NASA recently added $250 million in Headquarters-held reserves to the project to address these storage and related personnel costs.
Congress could reduce risks to both the Europa mission and Artemis program while potentially saving taxpayers up to $1 billion by providing NASA the flexibility in forthcoming fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations legislation to determine the most cost effective and timely vehicle to launch the Europa Clipper mission in 2023 or whenever the satellite is completed.
As blunt as the letter is, the wording above is also very careful to hide the fact that the $1 billion savings will come, not from avoiding the launch delay, but from buying a private commercial launch vehicle (estimated launch cost about $100 million) versus using SLS (estimated launch cost of $1 billion to $4 billion).
Will Congress take this advice? It should, though I am pessimistic. Our Congress has not shown much interest in doing the smart thing when it comes to SLS for about a decade. Why should things change now?