by Ryan Whitwam
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…