In a briefing held by the planetary science community to propose its future missions for the next decade, a NASA official explained that there will likely be no available launches on NASA’s SLS rocket for planetary missions until the late 2020s, and more likely not until the next decade.
While NASA has a goal of being able to launch three SLS missions in a 24-month period, and two in 12 months, the supply chain is currently limited to one SLS per year. That will change by the early 2030s, [the official] said, growing to two per year and thus creating opportunities for additional SLS missions beyond the Artemis program. That will be enabled by changes to at the Michoud Assembly Facility to increase core stage production and a “block upgrade” to the RS-25 engine used on that core stage that will be cheaper and faster to produce.
The official also claimed that the cost of buying a launch on SLS is at best going to be $800 million, but that price won’t be available until the ’30s when SLS’s are launching more frequently. Until then, it appears NASA will charge one billion per launch.
All of this is pure fantasy on NASA’s part. Once cheaper and more usable private commercial rockets come on line, such as SpaceX’s Starship, SLS will go the way of the horse buggy. And this is likely to happen much sooner than 2030, more likely in the next three years.
Moreover, for both cost and practical reasons I cannot see any planetary scientist planning a mission on SLS, ever. There are now much cheaper options that are actually flying, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch. Moreover, SLS’s slow and cumbersome launch pace should scare any planetary scientist away, as such missions must launch on time, and SLS might easily miss their launch windows. In fact, this has already happened. For years Congress mandated that Europa Clipper launch on SLS. When it became clear that SLS would not be available for that mission’s launch window, Congress finally relented and allowed NASA to buy the launch from a commercial company.
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