- NASA Watch
- May 25, 2023
NASA Knows What SLS/Orion Will Cost – The Rest of Us Do Not
GAO: True Cost of SLS, Orion Unclear, Space News
“NASA has not released comprehensive, long-term cost estimates for SLS and Orion. The reason is to avoid giving Congress sticker shock, said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “If we laid out a path directly to Mars and we laid out all the vehicles and all the testing and all the work to get there, then you end up with a fairly long period of time with a lot of funding that goes into that activity that says this program is something maybe we don’t want to go do,” Gerstenmaier said in November during a panel discussion with SLS and Orion prime contractors at the Newseum in Washington.”
GAO Sees Through NASA’s SLS/Orion Smoke and Mirrors, earlier post
I been saying this since SLS and Orion was announced. Unless we fly this thing several times a year, it will be way to expensive to fly. Scrap both of these projects now, use the money to get private companies like SpaceX and Bigelow the boost they need to speed up their programs. Nasa can work on the “big ticket” ideas and charge private industry with building the hardware to execute the ideas
You said-“Unless we fly this thing several times a year, it will be way to expensive to fly.”
So …like the car salesman who says he loses money on every car he sells? How does he make money? He says “volume”!
I don’t think it works that way.
Someone will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t I read somewhere that the ground-handling and other support equipment they’re building for SLS can handle two launches a year max?
Kind of, close.
The head of the Michoud assembly facility said he thought they could turn out two cores a year if the funding were available. And some program documentation said the baseline for the entire complex is one every two years with an occasional and “non-sustainable” three-in-a-year campaign. And then Mr. Gerstenmaier recently said they needed to do one a year to retain their mojo. Make of those what you will. (I guess I could find the references if forced to do so.)
The ground systems would be hard-pressed to exceed two launches per year because it is single-string. One VAB highbay, one Mobile Launcher, one Pad, and one Crawler Transporter. If anything should have a serious repair issue, everything stops.
Who will “scrap both of these”, you may ask? Obama won’t since he’ll be out of office in January 2017. Bolden can’t without his boss’s approval, and is likely out after the next election cycle. Congress certainly won’t since Orion/SLS is their pet project while Musk is too busy fighting for parity in domestic satellite launches to care about NASA’s BFR (as he once so eloquently called SLS). In which case, the GAO (and NASA IG perhaps) should do its job of exposing government fraud, waste or abuse!
Oh, your absolutely right. It wont get canceled unless Congress starts seeing the price tag to fly this monster, and the American public has a fit over the waste of taxpayer money–which wont happen as NASA is one of the few government agencies that has a positive reputation among the public. What they will do is different from what they should do.
As much as I agree with everyone about how much cheaper this could be done and the crazy way things are done, Mr Anderson makes the most salient point: NASA is the ONLY government agency to win awards as places to work and has good public reputation. All NASA has to do (fortunately or unfortunately) is to say “1 penny of the federal budget to [Inspire the next generation of explorers]” and the public will just agree. My thought as I read all of the posts is that time would be better spent altering the trajectory of the Titanic, rather than railing against it being built as that is highly unlikely. Keith’s recent work on ISEE-3 is an excellent example of re purposing hardware and recognizing brilliant engineering. The writing I see on this site suggests real brilliance in some of you (not you Keith <g>) and if you all got behind some weird, exciting, dangerous, challenging task for SLS, I think you could steer NASA to that purpose even with all the bureaucracy working against you, you could make it happen. To cancel SLS ends the life of NASA and no legislator wants to see the ad: ” Senator XXX killed NASA while raising funding for food stamps.” Not going to happen ladies and gents.
“To cancel SLS ends the life of NASA…”
Not so. It would significantly cut back (but not kill) the parts of NASA developing SLS. But that’s just a bit over 10% of NASA’s budget – 15% if you include Orion.
NASA is not a monolith. It’s a whole flock of different organizations flying in loose formation. Most of NASA will sail on just fine without SLS, and the parts actually trying to do useful exploration will do better, even if only from no longer having to (expensively) pretend they need SLS.
You’re calling for sensible people to book passage on the Titanic because it’s the only game in town. One problem: We’re sensible people. We know it’s NOT the only game in town, and we know what happened to the Titanic. Ain’t gonna happen.
NASA should concentrate on the science aspect of space and let private companies like SpaceX handle building the launch vehicles at greatly reduced costs. Their vertical integration is key to keeping the costs down. As soon as you get contractors with military ties you see prices skyrocket.
Most of the funding spent on SLS/Orion doesn’t pay for NASA itself. It passes through NASA to the Primes (and from there to thousands of subcontractors.) Boeing and LM would lose.
Ending SLS/Orion, redirecting the funding to projects that empower NASA and HSF, and NASA could potentially thrive.
Look how excited the public are about SpaceX, how utterly uninterested they are in SLS/Orion. Contrast the cost to the taxpayers of the two. Adopting the COTS model throughout HSF, and even much of SMD, would put a charge through NASA.
Henry and Paul: First, bad example on Titanic. SLS will not sink <g>! It is not bad technology (space shuttle was at best a bad compromise given the configuration). SLS will get to where it is sent. Henry, IF you can make SLS go away, then do so. Paul, most of the money spent by every govt agency goes to Primers. “Ending SLS/Orion” will not free NASA to do other things with that money. The money will disappear. It will go back into the government to be spent on roads or bridges or some ones pork project. PLEASE both of you continue to work to end SLS. With that said, consider that you may not be able to. What would you like SLS to do? Oh and as for “how excited the public are about Space X,” I do not see any crowds surrounding launches of Space X vehicles. Those launches are interesting to us, but not the general public. If you want the public, through its representatives to support space exploration, you have to have someone selling it, and have something that people can latch on to as the driver. I am just saying that all everyones good arguments against SLS aside, if we do not purpose those dollars, that I believe we will inevitably will spend, then we have missed an opportunity to influence a project for which our support is vital. A random thought would be to DEMAND that, after the first test, we only want the 130mt or bigger configuration. This would put NASA on notice of its role to be experimental and on the fringe. It would provide a 130mt payload opportunity for some great project. If there is going to be only 1 of these a year, what is the purpose of a 70mt version? Again, I am not saying I am a SLS supporter. I am just looking at the reality that it is getting support from 2 very populous and very politically important states (Texas, Florida) and do not think the bright people on this forum can make it go away.
A technical correction, but an important one: Orion/SLS is not Congress’s pet project. It’s the pet project of a regional coalition within Congress.
Why does this matter, when the routine way Congress does business is horse-trading among such coalitions, vote for my pork and I’ll vote for yours?
Because the horse-trading stops when some regional pet project has suddenly gotten nationally embarrassing. “The Bridge To Nowhere” never got built; it lost its funding support among the rest of Congress once word got out.
It’s hard to say when that threshold will be crossed. But SLS does seem to be trending toward it.
Yes. And more voices being raised can’t hurt, I would think. Emails being sent, Congressional reps being called, the public being informed.
Keep on dinging the wine glass. Sooner or later all heads will turn …
Hmm. “The Rocket To Nowhere”?..
People have tried that, it doesn’t take. Wrong crowd, I suspect.
How about just repeating “costs 6 SpaceX’s every year”? Or “costs 50 Falcon 9’s per year (or 30 Falcon Heavies)”?
[Alternatively, since NASA isn’t releasing costs, just say “$50 billion more to develop”, “the remaining $50 billion”, etc. (About $20 billion to the 2021 first Orion crew launch, and another $30 billion until the SLS-130 test in 2032.) Keep driving that home.]
Hard to say what specific tactic might work, really. “SLS delenda est”? Nah. There probably isn’t a magic catchphrase.
Lacking that, we’ll just need brute persistance in pointing out reality anytime the subject comes up till it finally filters up and gets across to a critical mass of the Congress.
The costs of going to space is totally out of control. This is what happens with fat contractors like Boeing, Lockheed and the like when they jack up the prices like crazy. Too many people, too much fat, too much bureaucracy too much time “playing and testing”. Things were much faster in the 60s and they were willing to take bigger risks. NASA and the government are so risk adverse because of the Shuttle problems that the “test everything within an inch of it’s life” mentality has trickled down into every aspect.
The real problem is that, fifty years later, they’re approximating both the Saturn 5’s capabilities and its cost. Given what’s been spent on SLS so far, how much longer it is to first flight, and the amount of ongoing overhead it’ll take to support any flights that might follow, SLS looks well on track for the same ballpark as Saturn 5’s $47 billion current-dollars program cost for a total of 13 S5 flights.
But Saturn 5 was the first of its kind, moreover built on an early 1960’s technology base. Any organization that can’t do significantly better costwise fifty years later has major problems and ought not to be in the rocket development business.
Once that unique moment in history passed, Saturn 5’s cost wasn’t sustainable. Nor is SLS’s cost. The language lacks words for people deluded enough to think they can hide those costs long enough to achieve anything useful. Unless they define “useful” as “another year of SLS funding before we have to find real jobs”.
NASA’s future in space, if it is to have one at all, will involve rides on commercial launchers flown at a fraction of NASA-developed rocket costs. 33 years since debut of their last arguably successful vehicle, NASA’s rocket development branch is becoming an ever more obvious embarrassment.
NASA has made negative progress since Apollo in terms of providing accurate cost estimates.
and I would add, managing to deliver cost effective vehicles. Capability may be there however the cost is coming under greater scrutiny.
So true. Yet everyone loves to assume and talk about how technology has made so many things cheaper!
Technology makes things steadily cheaper, unchecked bureaucracy makes things steadily more expensive. NASA’s vehicle development bureaucracies seem to have roughly balanced the two trends in making SLS/Orion cost near the same as Saturn 5/Apollo CSM.
For an example of how much cheaper 50 years of technological advance unburdened by entrenched bureaucracy can make space launch, you don’t have to look further than recent commercial results.
NASA wasted immeasurable time and money with the shuttle. Had they kept going with the Apollo technology they could have potentially brought down the cost. The Russians are still using 60’s technology and it works well. Now we have SpaceX who is only 10 years old and has done more innovation in 10 years than NASA ever did in the last 30. Understandably they don’t have public funding and have to answer to Congress so they are free to do as they wish. Their progress with the Falcon 9R reusable system is astounding. Next year they will start testing their Dragon V2 system and Falcon 9 Heavy should be ready by the end of the year. I cannot fathom how much time and money NASA has spent developing Orion and they still haven’t flown it yet. I’m all for NASA but SpaceX is where the real interesting stuff is happening.
I guess this is what you get for a penny on the dollar.
I don’t know if this is a function of bad project management and poor cost projections or just willful deceit from NASA managers.
‘NASA has not released comprehensive, long-term cost estimates for SLS and Orion. The reason is to avoid giving Congress sticker shock, said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.’
I mean, to publicly state that you aren’t willing to tell the people whom are responsible for paying your salary how much something is going to cost them because you worry they won’t want to pay you anymore seems more arrogant to me rather than NASA just doesn’t know the actual costs. Either way, NASA administration appears incompetent or a bit too Machiavellian in their long-term self interest. (A mix of both?)
Also, for congress and the white house to rubber-stamp a project without asking first a basic question like, ‘realistically, how much is this thing going to cost?’, is just ignorant.
Sadly, we all lose.
SLS is built largely at Congress’ request and Congress doesn’t care about the per-launch cost. That’s not their KPI. They’re focused on jobs retained or hired in their particular Congressional districts. SLS may never fly. But in the meantime, as long as the post-Shuttle industrial footprint is preserved, Congress has achieved its objective for SLS.
If we had continued to fly the Saturn V over those years; continuing to tweak the design of the subsystems as new technology came on line, it wouldn’t have cost a gazillion dollars now. That’s what large scale production does for you.
Remember the M1 battle tank of the late 60s and early 70s. It was a boondoggle, it was a money pit, it was overweight, out of shape, wouldn’t work in the desert, and would sink the military budget of the United States. They just decided to take it, fix it, tweak it some more, and then use it. And they turned it into the premier battle tank in the world. If you don’t think so just ask any army that’s come up against it.
If we hadn’t short sightedly gone with the green eye shade boys and eviscerated NASA’s budget, cancelled the Saturn V, cancel ongoing development of the F1A, mothballed Nerva and continued to spend an appropriate amount of money on space exploration for the world’s superpower, the Saturn V or its progeny would look like a very different animal today, and so would our space program.
What exactly is a “green eye shade boy”?
SLS Orion costs are not difficult to figure out. The GAO was thrown a very carefully crafted set of words that make little sense (really, read those replies). That is, unless the GAO team want’s to argue forever with people whose replies are focused on causing confusion, on purpose.
Now think this through—usually there’s an audience out there, like here on NASA Watch, laying blame for the NASA Orion and SLS direction (the “Senate Launch System”) on congress, political pressures, jobs winning out over results, etc. Then NASA is presented as the victim of all this. Think this through a little more. Having been told to go do something, why would the Orion and SLS program leadership also try to hide it’s costs? Wouldn’t you want to inform your masters on progress, or tally up the bills neatly, itemize, and make graphs, and also show bills that must eventually come due? A resonable conclusion is that there is more going on than just NASA taking orders. It’s reasonable to conclude that NASA program leadership also wants this SLS/Orion direction that they present as a given, coming from the outside (woe is me, I’m just following orders).
Program leadership knows no good would come from generating or even less, sharing, better Orion and SLS cost estimates. Seeing all the numbers nicely organized and extrapolated would be damning for three reasons. One, it would become official that SLS and Orion based missions go no where until ISS funds are fully freed up. You can imagine the lingo as leadership tries to say “ISS de-orbit” in 20 different obtuse ways. Second, when you draw out the numbers it takes time for that new ISS money to make new things (especially if your waiting till the 2020’s). Quickly, there is a loss of relevance as dates in the 2040’s emerge for first missions, along with huge per mission costs as all costs till then arguably accumulate to so few missions as well. Third, it’s quite possible the numbers never add up even for just SLS and Orion in the next few years, to ever launch past a first shot that is. The reasons here get complicated (think of how bills come due for what parts you have already, leaving no money for the new things you need to finish). If you see these programs in a big kerfuffle for extra dollars, next year maybe, or asking for a “one time plus up”, this will be proof the last risk has been realized.
We need to come to grips with that sometimes organizations adapt, and resurrect. They become new, and healthy (like IBM). Maybe organizations rise to even greater glory than ever (like Apple). But other times, a backup plan is needed, when it’s just too much to ask that the typewriter maker reinvent itself, changing into a computer or word processing powerhouse.
Good analysis, as far as it goes.
The additional thing to keep in mind is, NASA is not a monolith. It’s not NASA as a whole, or NASA HQ, hiding the SLS cost data. It’s the bureaucratic faction within NASA that’s backing SLS, and by extension backing that whole big-rocket, big-bureaucracy approach to space exploration that hasn’t been affordable since Apollo wound down.
(Frankly, the current big-rocket bureaucracy isn’t fit to shine the Apollo organization’s shoes. Fifty more years of technology to work with, yet they can’t improve on Apollo costs while taking decades where Apollo took years?)
Seen in this light, it becomes clear what’s going on: An attempted long-term power/budget grab against Station by the SLS faction. In terms of Congressional regional politics, it just ain’t gonna happen. And as you point out, it’s likely it still wouldn’t be enough money for the ridiculously inflexible bureaucracy involved to accomplish anything anyway.
If the SLS caucus thinks it has a shot at killing and eating ISS, I suggest they may be in for a rude shock. Orbital’s merger with ATK puts the SRB supplier in Orbital’s pocket and Orbital is an ISS caucus member. The probable lack of any significant future for engines or first stage structure from Russia and/or Ukraine has Orbital looking to ATK to make solid boosters for Antares 2.0. They might need to make as many as four to six per year. ATK is only slated to make six SRB’s for SLS over seven years (two test articles and four flight articles for the initial unmanned test in 2017 and the – maybe, maybe not – first manned flight in 2021). If the SLS-niks try knifing the ISS, Orbital may just return the favor and gut the SLS by abandoning production of SRB’s. As my old pappy used to say, we’re getting down to a duel with cleavers in a dark cellar.
Now that is a good observation there…give up cargo flights (if Orbital still has a commercial cargo contract then) or give up on SRM rates of production ever moving up (since ISS has to be de-orbited to get funds for SLS to actually get used any). VERY interesting…well this just made my day…
Problem: Seeing high price tags causes program cancelation
Solution: Don’t show price tags
It looks like NASA finally learned it’s lesson! SEI was canceled because of sticker shock. ISS was almost canceled because of stick shock.
Now one may conclude that if high price tags cause programs to be canceled, NASA should lower the prices… but that is incorrect. If seeing the price tag is the cause of program cancelations, simply hide the price tag!
NASA doesn’t know what SLS/Orion costs are either. They know how much money they have spent and expect in the budget in the coming years, if it holds true. But they have no idea what it will end up costing. They still show launching in 2017 on the schedules and they just got through PDR!! NASA HSF is run by a bunch of arrogant morons who have never done design and development. There are no adults in charge, it is a rudderless ship. It is only a matter of time before it runs aground.
A Moon base would be nice. The SLS is the only launch vehicle that NASA has that can send Bigelow modules to lunar orbit.