Wednesday, September 7, 2011

SLS Sticker Shock

An artist's concept of the Shuttle-derived Heavy Lift Vehicle. Image source:

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Space Launch System will cost much more than Congress anticipated, leading the White House to weigh what direction to take with the program.

Discussions now focus in part on whether Congress is likely to support the more than $35 billion NASA initially projected for heavy-lift rockets and manned capsules through 2025, compared with the political risk of asking for a lot more money to speed up development and testing.

Some accelerated scenarios, intended to provide the public with tangible results sooner in the timetable, show the total price tag increasing by nearly 80%—to more than $62 billion, according to NASA projections.

Many OMB and NASA officials, however, already worried that even the agency's $35-billion option would be hard to sustain on Capitol Hill, are leery of requesting more dollars. A NASA spokesman said the agency wants a "long-term exploration initiative that is affordable, sustainable, and achievable," while avoiding past mistakes "so that America's leadership in space is never jeopardized."

I wrote on August 23 that the independent review by Booz Allen Hamilton confirmed NASA's short-term numbers were realistic, but beyond that probably understated the true cost of the program.

The SLS was dictated by Congress in 2010 after the Constellation program was cancelled. Critics have labelled it the Senate Launch System because members of the Senate's space subcommittee designed the project as a means of protecting jobs in their states. No mission or destination has been specified for SLS by Congress.

Because Congress views SLS as a jobs program, in my opinion they'll continue to demand SLS proceed, even though it will be underfunded, simply because it will keep people employed in their states, regardless of if it ever flies.

UPDATE September 9, has obtained a copy of the charts that led to NASA to conclude SLS will cost more than Congress anticipated.

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