White House: Cost for each SLS launch is $2 billion

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According to the Office of Management and Budget (OPM), the cost for each SLS launch is now estimated to equal $2 billion.

This is the first time anyone in the executive branch has put a number to the SLS per launch cost. NASA has always refused to give a number, for good reason, since this price compares so horribly with even the most expensive private rocket (generally more than $200 million for the biggest members of the Delta rocket family). The Falcon Heavy costs about $100 million, so that to get the same mass into orbit would require two launches, but that would still be only $200 million, one tenth the cost.

The article then notes how this cost is affecting the Europa Clipper mission, which has three launch options, with SLS mandated by Congress.

The powerful SLS booster offers the quickest ride for the six-ton spacecraft to Jupiter, less than three years. But for mission planners, there are multiple concerns about this rocket beyond just its extraordinary cost. There is the looming threat that the program may eventually be canceled (due to its cost and the emergence of significantly lower cost, privately built rockets). NASA’s human exploration program also has priority on using the SLS rocket, so if there are manufacturing issues, a science mission might be pushed aside. Finally, there is the possibility of further developmental delays—significant ground testing of SLS has yet to begin.

Another option is United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket, which has an excellent safety record and has launched several high-profile missions for NASA. However, this rocket requires multiple gravity assists to push the Clipper into a Jupiter orbit, including a Venus flyby. This heating would add additional thermal constraints to the mission, and scientists would prefer to avoid this if at all possible.

A final possibility is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, with a kick stage. This booster would take a little more than twice as long as the SLS rocket to get the Clipper payload to Jupiter, but it does not require a Venus flyby and therefore avoids those thermal issues. With a track record of three successful flights, the Falcon Heavy also avoids some of the development and manufacturing concerns raised by SLS vehicle. Finally, it offers the lowest cost of the three options.

The fact that Congress is requiring the use of SLS for a cost of $2 billion, a rocket that might not even be ready in time, when Europa Clipper could be launched on two other already operational rockets at about a tenth of the cost illustrates well the overall corruption and incompetence that permeates Congress. They really aren’t interested in the interests of the nation. They’d rather distribute money to big contractors and local interests, even if it costs the taxpayer billions and risks the mission’s success.


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  • Cotour

    A perfect segway and example of the “Co operative” business model.

    A launch of SLS costs 10 to 20 times the cost of a visionary actaul Capitalist with a vision.

  • Richard M

    It’s about getting reelected. They push pork because it actually achieves that.

    I’m sure SLS really could get Europa Clipper to Jupiter faster than any other available (certified) rocket – a valuable advantage. I’m sure it will be reasonably reliable. But is the two years you save worth ten times the cost as the next best alternative – especially if it’s likely your $2 billion probe will likely have to be stored in a warehourse for two or more years waiting for a rocket to be ready?

  • Richard M

    In Berger’s new Rocket Report – something everyone here should subscribe to – he has gotten a response finally directly from NASA:

    In a response, NASA did not deny this figure. “NASA is working to bring down the cost of a single SLS launch in a given year as the agency continues negotiations with Boeing,” a spokeswoman said.

    The Space Launch System defenders are just going to have accept that now. It’s a $2 billion rocket. Not including cost of payload. This makes even the Shuttle look dirt cheap. In fact, it makes even the Saturn V look cheap: adjusted for inflation, a Saturn V only cost $1.3 billion per launch.

  • mkent

    Having read Eric Berger’s source article to this post, I think a few things need to be clarified.

    1) The flyaway cost of an SLS is about $700 million. This is an aerospace analog to what economists call the marginal cost, or the cost of building one additional SLS launch vehicle.

    2) What OMB is quoting is the annual program cost of SLS. This is what the SLS budget line item costs each year.

    You might think that since NASA and Boeing claim to be able to build one SLS launch vehicle a year, those two numbers should be the same. They’re not. The annual program cost includes a lot of overhead costs (such as facilities and specialized equipment) that don’t increase with the production rate of the vehicle. What this means is that if NASA can double the production rate of SLS to two a year, the total cost should be $2.7 billion, not $4 billion.

    Which cost should be used to discuss the cost of an SLS to launch Europa Clipper? That depends. If NASA can increase the production rate to two a year and devote one of the extra SLSs to Europa Clipper, it’s the $700 million figure. If they can’t and have to delay Artemis launches a year to fit Europa Clipper in, it’s the $2 billion figure.

    Since OMB is pushing Congress to rescind its original mandate, they’re going to quote the higher figure just for that reason. That’s actually not unreasonable. Europa Clipper should be ready to launch by 2023 — early in the SLS production run — so it’s unlikely NASA can increase the build rate by then. In addition, the White House is pushing NASA to move as fast as possible on Artemis. If NASA had another SLS available, the White House would want to use it on Artemis, not Europa Clipper.

    For comparison, the flyaway cost of the Delta IV Heavy is about $400 million. The Falcon Heavy under consideration is a single copy of the expendable version — which costs $150 million — with a Star 48 kick stage. Adding the kick stage and integration costs to the Falcon Heavy, I’d expect the final price to be about $200 million. Also, I believe the operations cost of Europa Clipper will be about $30 million / year, so shaving three years off of the flight time should save taxpayers about $90 million. Spending $500 million more on a launch vehicle to save $90 million in operations cost doesn’t make a whole lost of sense.

    Having said that, however, there is one more thing to consider. NASA was at one point planning to launch Europa Clipper on the first flight of the SLS Block 1B, because no one wants to risk a crew on the first flight of a new upper stage. If switching Europa Clipper to a commercial launch vehicle means having to have a dummy payload on the first flight of EUS, NASA wouldn’t be saving any money on launch vehicles at all and would actually be spending more money. Then again, I personally don’t want a $2 billion one-of-a-kind science probe on the first flight of EUS either.

    So what would I do? I’d launch Europa Clipper on a Falcon Heavy with a Star 48 kick stage. But I wouldn’t have started development of any new launch vehicles for the Vision for Space Exploration when it was first proposed in 2003, so I may be biased.

    At any rate, I hope this clarifies some of the costs and trade-offs involved.

  • Richard M


    1. The flyaway cost of an SLS is about $700 million.

    What’s your source for that?

    2. If NASA can increase the production rate to two a year and devote one of the extra SLSs to Europa Clipper, it’s the $700 million figure.

    Yes, but Bridenstine and Bowersox were pointedly asked that in the Oct 15 subcommittee hearing, and they essentially shot it down, saying it would depend on how much more Boeing would be willing to invest on production at Michoud. Which, of course, there is zero chance of Boeing doing.

    Perhaps at some point down the road, we could see production of core cadence increase, presumably if Congress appropriates the money. But it’s just not possible to see how it will happen at any point in time when Europa Clipper would benefit from it. So if Congress still insists that Europa Clipper *must* go up on SLS, it’s going to be spending some time sitting in storage, waiting for a launcher.

  • DeanH

    This is why NASA will be sucking hind tit in the new space race with Space-X and Blue Horizon. They are still backward thinking and unable to curb costs.

  • Edward

    mkent wrote: “Which cost should be used to discuss the cost of an SLS to launch Europa Clipper? That depends. If NASA can increase the production rate to two a year and devote one of the extra SLSs to Europa Clipper, it’s the $700 million figure.

    Actually, it would be half of the $2.7 billion, or $1.4 billion per launch.

    This assumes, of course, that NASA will have need of an average of two SLS launches each year. And that Congress will fund them. And that Boeing ramps up to that production rate.

    Richard M asked mkent: “ What’s your source for that [$700 million]?

    The article states: “NASA officials estimate the third SLS Block 1 launch vehicle’s marginal cost will be at least $876 million.” This is a bit more than mkent’s stated $700 million flyaway or marginal cost. Either way, a two per year rate is still around $1.4 billion per launch vehicle.

    So, will Congress pay for the higher manufacture rate? It is hard to say, but the past suggests they won’t. When the B2 was being built, Congress had a choice to pay $3 billion annually for the construction of two B2s per year — $1.5 billion per aircraft — or pay $2 billion annually for the construction of only one B2 per year. They chose the lower annual cost and paid $2 billion per bomber.

    DeanH is right. Congress is thinking like a centrally controlled economy, but SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other commercial companies are thinking like free market capitalist economies. Commercial space companies necessarily must find cost-efficient methods, but government-run space programs have no such need. Richard M’s point is unfortunately true. Congress is willing to forgo science and the efficient use of taxpayer money (other people’s money) in order to gain political advantage, especially for getting reelected and retaining their jobs. It is too bad that We the People allow them to get away with such poor fiduciary practices with our hard earned money.

  • A. Nonymous

    Meanwhile, Elon just speculated that his marginal costs for each Starship launch might be as low as $2 *M*illion, although that might not include amortization of the fixed costs, particularly the engines.

  • Edward

    A. Nonymous noted: “Elon just speculated that his marginal costs for each Starship launch might be as low as $2 *M*illion

    SpaceX is showing how free market capitalism works so much better than central controlled economies. The company is finding efficiencies that allow for tremendously reduced access to space.

    Two professors invented the CubeSat, which has helped to drive the recent smallsat revolution. Components for CubeSats and smallsats are being invented and improved upon, also showing how free market capitalism works better than our heritage centrally controlled (Congressionally controlled) NASA has done over the past six decades. Smallsats are making operating in space less expensive on top of the reduced cost of access to space.

    If SpaceX can get the marginal cost of a Starship launch to $2 million and charges as little as $7 million, then it will take about 20 launches of each Starship to recover the cost of building a $100 million Starship (my memory on these estimated costs is fuzzy) and another 20 to recover a similar cost of the Super Heavy booster. After that, another 200 total Starship launches will be needed for each billion dollars of development costs. It seems to me that the proposed point-to-point (city to city) operations may be a cash cow for the company. It may replace New Shepard as a space tourism option, as it would spend more time in freefall and a seat likely will be far less than the $250,000 for a Virgin Galactic ride, and I expect a New Shepard ride to have a similarly high price.

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