20 thoughts on “SLS Costs”

  1. SLS doesn’t make any economic sense but that’s hardly news. It just does not have enough flight rate to justify the fixed costs. The first launch, if it ever gets launched, will be of a prototype SLS which won’t even have the final configuration.

  2. 70 ton at first, isn’t it? So six times the cost.

    Describing Orion as more-than-capable is quite a laugh. It’s both too big and too small. Too big by mass and too small by volume.

    Where will SpaceX be in seven years? or even next month?

  3. What I wonder about is if Congress still thinks that it will be used to take astronauts to the ISS. I’ve been present for some of the House hearings where some members made it plain that this idea is unshakably in their mind. That made me wonder about an aspect of the practicality of such a thing from the standpoint of flight safety.

    The inert weights of the payload, Block 1 second stage, and core stage add up to 265,590 pounds. All of that would be come down in Europe in the event of a launch accident after the European gate was passed. The Shuttle, on the other hand, would have dropped only about 58,000 pounds, in the form of the external tank. The 265,000 pound Orbiter, being a winged RLV, would most likely have either landed, or ended with controlled flight into terrain. SLS will just dump hardware all over the place.

    I’m not certain that it is possible to demonstrate 100 in a million casualties under those circumstances, particularly since the low flight rate will always guarantee a large assumed probability of failure (at least the way the 45th Space Wing does it).

    We did one mission that was as risky as this, but it was in 1973. Skylab was launched into a 50 degree orbit, and flew over both London and Paris. There were numerous known problems with the Saturn V, and NASA did a great deal of work to make sure Skylab’s launch was perfect. The Skylab external heat shield and one of the large solar panels ripped off during ascent, but made it into orbit. It was repaired, and had a successful life. In any event, we were much less risk averse in the 1970s than we are today.

    With the increase in European population since 1973, the dramatic increase in risk aversion by everyone, and the combination of the biggest amount of inert weight in an ELV ever flown over Europe and the fact that the flight rate will always guarantee a high failure probability, I am having trouble imagining such a flight every taking place.

    1. :NASA did a great deal of work to make sure Skylab’s launch was perfect.”

      We are talking about the ‘perfect’ launch where the interstage only partially separated and caused unusually high engine temperatures that could have resulted in a multiple engine shutdown on the SII stage, right?

      Or did you just mean ‘perfect’ as in ‘didn’t drop a flaming rain of death on a major city?’

      1. The launch was almost a complete failure, but it wasn’t due to lack of diligence by NASA. They honestly worked to make it perfect. And they had launched Apollo 17 only 6 months earlier, so it wasn’t like they were out of practice. You cite details, though, and people forget those. Apollo 17 was the only Saturn V launch delayed for “mechanical” (i.e. vehicle-related) reasons. Skylab was almost a complete failure. I was at both Apollo 17 and Skylab launches, and vividly remember being relocated to an inferior viewing site after the aborted first attempt on Apollo 17 (but Skylab I watched from the closest point you could get!). Apollo 6 (the second launch) was a failure, due to J-2 engine outs in S-II and the inability of the S-IVB J-2 to restart. Apollo 13 had a S-II engine out, which was fortunate because the vehicle was about to come apart structurally due to pogo caused by the center J-2. Apollo 15 had a near-catastrophic recontact between S-I and S-II as as result of having removed retros and ullage motors from the respective stages, to save weight.

        NASA thought they had solved the J-2 problems by the time Skylab launched, but they also thought that after Apollo 6. Actually, the main problem they thought remained was propellant margin for S-II. The engines ran on a mixture-ratio schedule that was designed to ensure minimum residuals, but it was difficult to know how much propellant had been loaded in the first place. They did a very extensive statistical analysis to figure that out, and adjust the mixture ratio schedule accordingly.

        For all of the success of Apollo, there were a lot of “near-misses.” We tend to remember only the success.

  4. Well, let’s work this through. A 3 pack of Teresa Heinz’s turkey gravy costs $4.79. That’s just 36 ounces. You’ll need 3,840,000 of those packs just to fill up a 30,000 gallon train car. I figure a good train consists of at least 10 cars, so that’s $183 million per train. Figure a train load of gravy a month for NASA, and a billion a flight is about right to keep that gravy train coming.

  5. I don’t understand the limited flight rate. The Saturn V was a big honking rocket. In 1968 and 69 it was launched five times in eleven months. The Space Shuttle used to routinely fly six or eight times a year. The SLS is a big honking rocket derived from Shuttle hardware. Why can’t it fly more than twice a year, if that?

    1. Because there is nothing for it to launch. It seems the program manager is hoping to have the ISS budget after 2020 to maybe do some payloads. I think there will be an ISS replacement though. So expecting the whole ISS budget to be available by then for BEO exploration to be a bit, uh, overly optimistic.
      Yes it is amazing how the rocket which was supposed to be cheaper than Shuttle actually isn’t.

      1. My guess is it plays out like this. NASA will continue granting extensions to ISS, so the payload budget wedge never materializes. Unable to fold up SLS and call it a day (we need pork for those districts!) a feeble attempt to create the upper stage/hab/etc needed to do something (anything!) with people will be made, but entirely in serial. As in, first the upper stage, then 5-10 years after that a hab module, and 5-10 years after that some sort of SEP module, etc. And by the time they get all that done, SLS itself will be beset with obsolescence issues and need to be redesigned, followed by the other bits (in serial). Results: tens of billions spent in the right districts, and a perfect safety record due to none of that hardware being used for people.

        The older I get, the more cynical I get about these things. At some point, you realize NASA is mainly politics, and politics is a bottomless pit of greed, corruption, and stupidity.

    2. I wouldn’t say shuttle sustained 6-8 flights a year. A few years it was done, and I the last time it was done, the tempo felt fine. To me, it seemed more like 4 flights a year is where NASA budgets seemed to go. The main thing is that KSC costs so much whether you launch once a year or 8 times a year. You pay that cost first, and then you pay for time and material to build the expendable SLS, then the cost of propulsion, and finally ground support operations at JSC, which so long as MCC stays there also costs a huge chunk of change regardless of flight rate.

      Personally, I think Hurricane Ike showed that MCC could be done elsewhere and probably should be done as a distributed system. Astronaut training is partly done at JSC and mostly done all over the country (and world of you include survival training and ISS training).

    3. One reason is that SLS core stages are being built in the same factory that built the Shuttle external tanks (ET’s). There’s only so much room in that place for production machinery and SLS doesn’t really share any with the Shuttle ET, it’s all new. And an SLS core stage is not an ET. It’s half again as long and over three times as massive. Plus, it’s got the engines and thrust truss on it and an interstage so there are a lot more parts involved.

      Bottom line, the SLS is production-limited. The same plant that could turn out eight or nine ET’s a year, can’t crank out more than a pair of SLS core stages. They’re a lot bigger and a lot more complicated. Given budget realities, the Michoud plant will never get up to even that rate of production.

    4. Well, one issue is that launch costs have been lowered since Saturn V- NASA didn’t lower launch cost, but Arianespace did.
      Or you could say the global satellite market lowered launch cost- or Arianespace entire purpose was to capture this satellite market and did so. Russian and Chinese also created lower costs of lifting payload to orbit. And SpaceX is providing lower launch costs. One could also say the EELV program was somewhat successfully at lower cost- they promising $500 per lb and then $1000 per lb, and failed at that, but still it was fairly inexpensive.
      Launch cost have lowered over the decades and particularly when count cost of inflation.
      Or IF SLS could only cost 1 billion per launch it would cheaper than Saturn V.
      But it’s unlikely SLS will only cost 1 billion per launch- if include all the costs.
      And I am not even counting the development costs- which were included in Saturn V unit costs. One should include the development costs [but then it become more absurd], but even if don’t include them, to get to 1 billion dollar number they are probably are not including all the other costs.Or that might be how much NASA expects to spend to get the rocket components from private sector [though not likely when time arrives] – but that is not the total cost of assembling it and launching it.
      The total cost [not including development] is probably closer to 2 billion dollar [if lucky] and two per year is 4 billion and that’s most [or exceeds] of human spaceflight budget- particularly if ISS is still flying.

      Or to lower cost one must do things faster, and the tendency of bureaucracy will slows things down [it “profits” by slowing things down- and will it always needs 3 more professionals to screw in the lightbulb].

    5. Someone who actually knows could chime in but from what I have read in the popular press, they can’t manufacture them fast enough to support a higher flight rate. You could give NASA more money for launches but it wouldn’t make the rockets appear faster unless they expanded manufacturing capacity.

      Considering how much it cost just to get where they are, I shudder to think of what it would cost to double production.

  6. Elephant in the room:

    What missions do we have (funded) for the 3 billion dollar a year rocket to nowhere, with the painfully small, but massively heavy capsule, with a limited 30 day life support?

    1. Well, so far, none, past EM-1, and, provisionally, EM-2. The ARM mission really isn’t funded beyond some pathfinder funding.

      And then there’s the Europa Clipper, which is mandated to fly on SLS. But Europa isn’t funded yet beyond its own pathfinder phase, either. Even its lander mission looks in doubt right now, unless Culberson can get some Senate buy-in.

      But any actual missions beyond this scanty test schedule would require actual mission hardware, of which there’s none. I suspect the interest this year by NASA in the Phase 2 hab module proposals is its way to start addressing this problem on the cheap. Adapting a Bigelow module or two (or a couple of Cygnus cargo vehicles) as a cislunar habitat would be relatively cheap compared to pretty much any other mission profile that isn’t an Apollo 8 or Apollo 13 sightseeing redux – the bulk of the development costs are already sunk, after all.

      So perhaps, by the late 2020’s, we might just be able to exchange putzing around in low earth orbit for putzing around in cislunar space, albeit with far, far lower mission cadence, and doing considerably less actual science than even ISS accomplishes (the most valuable of which is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer at this point), all while waiting for hardware for anything more ambitious to be developed and built for use sometime in the 2030’s. Unless you count housing developments in Huntsville, Titusville and Denver, that is.


    BUG #: 2016-78167

    TITLE: SLS Costs Too Much

    OPENED BY: Rand Simberg

    PROBLEM: See Transterrestrial Blog.

    REPRO CASE: Run “Project Apollo” again.

    STATUS: Closed

    RESOLUTION: Won’t fix/ By Design

    COMMENT: Please refer to the SLS functional spec. “Too expensive” is clearly stated as a top-level requirement.

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