NASA has been working on the Space Launch System (SLS) since it retired the Space Shuttle in 2011. The agency initially hoped to have the mega-rocket flying by 2016, but that proved to be a wildly optimistic estimate. As the delays piled up, so has the cost. In a recent House Science Committee hearing, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin revealed the true cost of an SLS launch, and it’s much higher than the $2 billion target. It’s more like $4.1 billion, but Martin turned things around on the Representatives, reminding them it was Congress that dictated the terms of NASA’s SLS contracts.
The SLS is a super-heavy lift rocket, the most powerful launch system ever developed. Or rather, it will be if it ever launches. So far, NASA has only tested the individual components, as well as the Orion capsule that will go atop the stack. The SLS is at the heart of NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the moon, and it could be used to send large payloads into the outer solar system. However, the delays have already caused some changes in NASA’s plans. For example, the Europa Clipper mission, which is supposed to launch in 2024, will rely on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy instead of the SLS.
The SLS program has cost NASA more than $23 billion (accounting for inflation) in its first 10 years. This number is public, but the hearing is the first time the true launch cost has been revealed, and that $4.1 billion might not come down much. When asked if the SLS will get cheaper as the program matures, Martin seemed skeptical. In fact, he said all SLS flights will come with “a price tag that strikes us as unsustainable.” This exchange is around the middle of the video below.
These Congressional hearings are usually staid affairs, but as reported by Ars Technica, Martin chose to expound on the contract process without prompting from Reps. He said a component of the cost overrun comes down to Congress’ insistence that NASA use so-called “cost-plus” contracts. That means the contractor gets paid all their costs plus a fee on top as compensation. Martin says this incentivizes contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to take longer and spend more to get the same results. He specifically criticized Boeing’s poor planning and execution, noting they still received substantial bonus payments as called for under the cost-plus contract. Moving to fixed-price contracts would help lower costs in the future, Martin said.
Even if NASA was allowed to make changes to the SLS and Artemis programs going forward, that doesn’t change the nature of the SLS: it’s an expendable rocket. That $4.1 billion gets you a single launch, after which the used rocket is discarded in the ocean. SpaceX has famously brought down launch costs with the Falcon 9 by making the first stage reusable. The company’s upcoming Starship could give SLS a run for its money, too. NASA has chosen Starship for use in Artemis but only as a descent vehicle to reach the lunar surface. You have to wonder, though, if Starship could do it all for a fraction of cost.