SLS first mission delayed again

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Government in action! It appears that SLS’s first flight, an unmanned test flight around the Moon, is being delayed again, from early in 2019 to as late as the fourth quarter of that year.

Section 103 of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act (Public Law 109-155) requires written notification from within the agency to the NASA administrator and then separately after that from the administrator to Congress for significant cost or schedule overruns of major programs. In the case of a delay, the law specifies notification is required if “a milestone of the program is likely to be delayed by 6 months or more from the date provided for it in the Baseline Report of the program.”

By this measure, the readiness period would seemingly be pushed out to at earliest the second quarter of 2019, but L2 notes have indicated EM-1 launch date estimates in the third or fourth quarter. [emphasis mine]

In other words, when in April they first announced the delay from November 2018 to 2019, they were really announcing what will likely be a full year delay. This will mean that it is going to take NASA 15 years to fly this single unmanned mission, spending about $38 billion, based on the appropriate numbers that I worked up in my Capitalism in Space policy paper.

Let me repeat that: One unmanned test flight. Fifteen years. $38 billion. Compare that with NASA’s the entire cargo and crew program, involving multiple spaceships and flights, which will cost about $12 billion total, and will include all the cargo and manned flights NASA intends to buy through the end of ISS’s present lifespan in 2024, estimated by contract to be about 42.

I should also add that I expect SpaceX to almost certainly fly its Falcon Heavy at least twice by the end of 2019. Falcon Heavy will have the capability of putting up about 50 tons, only slightly less than the 75 tons expected by this first SLS flight. With a purchase price per launch of $90 million, NASA could have purchased 422 Falcon Heavy launches for the $38 billion it wasted on this one SLS unmanned test mission.



  • wayne

    How much did we spend on the Apollo program?

    $38 billion dollars ‘now,’ roughly equates to $5-6 billion of purchasing power, circa 1967. (and that doesn’t include 40 years of quality-improvements)

  • LocalFluff

    “(and that doesn’t include 40 years of quality-improvements)”

    I think it does include 40 years of quality improvements. For NASA.
    Because the only thing SLS does is moving the main engines from the scrapped STS (designed in the 1970s) orbiter shuttle to the main tank. (And trying to weld and not drop those hydrogen and oxygen tanks). You’d think that getting rid of the shuttle orbiter would make things much simpler and cheaper. Well, I won’t comment that because it’d be rude to whomever involved.

    I often like contrarians. But there’s a brutal selection process of failures before a tiny few contrarians stick out as successful. Redeveloping the, by all rocket scientists I ever heard of, greatly lauded main shuttle engine into a non-reusable one, is contrarian considering the strong reusability trend. However, there’s an important difference between being contrarian because of hopes of new technologies, and being revertarian by going retro because you’re lazy and coward and too comfortably tucked over by a flood of tax money regardless of your achievement.

  • Calvin Dodge

    It amuses me greatly that Scott Pace and Mike Griffin still insist that SLS has a bright future (on The Space Show, Pace said companies shouldn’t dictate architecture – NASA should, as directed by Congress).

  • wodun

    Griffin gave some mixed statements on SLS but he should read up on the sunk cost fallacy.

  • Edward

    A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money. — Everett Dirksen as misquoted by a “newspaper fella”

    Your $38 billion estimate may be a little low. First, page 10 of “Capitalism In Space” mentions that “Adding the Orion project’s estimated price tag of $18 billion to that of Ares/SLS, $25 billion, we expect it will cost the taxpayer approximately $43 billion to build two SLS rockets, three Orion engineering test capsules, and the three Orion flight capsules. These budget numbers do not include any additional Orion/SLS rockets or capsules, nor do they include the service module Orion needs

    This brings up two points, A) your previous estimate was $43 billion, but that may include the EM-2 flight, and B) the service module is not included, as it is a bartered item, trading European ISS access for an Orion need. To get a more accurate cost of Orion/SLS, Europe’s spending on the service module should be included, or perhaps more appropriately, included should be the NASA spending on ISS that the service module replaces.

    Second, the linked article mentions that there are three three ESD (Exploration Systems Development ) programs, Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO), Orion, and Space Launch System (SLS). I did a quick look in your “Capitalism In Space” paper, but I didn’t find and don’t recall that you included the Ground Systems Development costs into the estimated spending on NASA’s next manned spaceflight system. If GSDO spending is included, doesn’t the $38 (or $43) billion cost estimate increase for the single unmanned test flight?

    The private space industry is doing far, far more than Congress’s ESD/SLS program, and doing it at 1/3 the cost.

    SpaceX may even send two paying passengers around the Moon, next year, performing a mission similar to Orion/SLS’s first manned mission, four or so years from now, but at a total cost that is far less than NASA is spending on their Congress-mandated manned exploration program.

    The $38 billion (or more) spent on NASA’s next manned spacecraft and rocket could have been better spent on productive missions. It is too bad that Congress insisted that we spend so much money on these vehicles, especially considering that they had (and still have) no idea for a useful mission for them.

    Unfortunately, NASA is not the decision maker on Orion/SLS funding, Congress is. NASA’s duty is to carry out, as directed by the president, Congress’s bidding.

    As many people like to point out, since con is the opposite of pro, Congress is the opposite of progress. And they certainly feel free to (over)spend our hard earned money.

  • LocalFluff

    Even if Congress orders NASA to make this slight adjustment to the STS, by creating X jobs in certain states, they could still do it an order of magnitude cheaper and a decade earlier. NASA opportunely chooses to slip into the abyss because they think they can blame some one else for it. Good bye NASA!

  • Edward: My numbers are based not on what NASA says it will spend, but on what Congress actually appropriated to the programs. So, from what I could gather, the ground system cost were included.

    As for my number of $38 billion, what I did was to add to my appropriated totals through 2017 the estimated yearly appropriations through 2019 for both Orion and SLS. In my policy paper these numbers go through 2021. Here they only go until 2019, which is why the number in the policy paper is higher.

    You are right however in connection with the service module. I did not include its cost in the policy paper numbers. I did note however that it was not included, noting also that this meant that the full cost for SLS/Orion was higher than the appropriated amounts.

  • pzatchok

    It will never fly.

    Orion has as a better chance of flying on a falcon heavy.

  • LocalFluff

    NASA should sell the engines. Aerojet Rocketdyne have 16 main engines in storage, at least 12 of which can fly (3 SLS) while some other are needed for spare parts. I suppose there are at least 4×2 flight proven four segment solid boosters too. Those things, I think, will fly one way or another. The main engines are reusable, actually the boosters too (even if they maybe aren’t worth it since they’re said to have 5,000 parts to be refurbished). So there’s some creative potential here.

  • Edward

    Thank you for the clarification. Sometimes I hate overanalyzing things, because it leads to confusion on my part.

    Either way, your point is well taken. Orion/SLS is expensive, could soon be obsolete, and hundreds of flights could have been bought through commercial space companies for the cost of developing the expensive Orion/SLS.

    I hate to be so negative about Orion/SLS, because I have worked with people who went on to work on these two projects. I feel sorry for them, because seems that their work is not going to be as useful to space exploration as they had anticipated when they moved to those projects.

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