NASA wants to fly the obsolete Space Launch System for at least 30 years

NASA recently revealed long-term plans for the Space Launch System (SLS), the monster rocket it has been working on since about 2010. The SLS has cost many billions of dollars, and NASA proposes to launch for the first time in February 2022.  NASA would like to commercialize the SLS, fly it once a year for the Artemis Program, and pay half price for the privilege. The space agency wants to do this for at least the next 30 years.

Meanwhile, a federal court has thrown out a lawsuit brought by Blue Origin against NASA and SpaceX over the award to Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskElon Musk warns SpaceX employees of bankruptcy risk if Starship engine production doesn't increase: report Microsoft CEO Nadella sells off nearly 0 million in shares of the company The dangers of anarchy in space MORE’s company for the Human Landing System. Work on the SpaceX HLS, based on the Starship rocket now being developed at Boca Chica, can now proceed. 

Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos was gracious in defeat on Twitter, noting it was “not the decision we wanted, but we respect the court’s judgment, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract.”

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Blue Origin will have another chance when the second-round competition for the HLS occurs. Congress will have to fund that round. With the Blue Origin lawsuit out of the way, NASA and SpaceX can now proceed with the Artemis return to the moon program. 

Ars Technica reported on how that effort is going: The plan is currently to launch the uncrewed Artemis I mission in February around the moon to test the Space Launch System and Orion. Then, in May 2024, Artemis II will take a crew of three Americans and one Canadian on an epic voyage around the moon — the first such since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Artemis III, the next moon landing, has been pushed back to at least 2025. NASA cited the lawsuit, funding shortfalls and technical problems as reasons for abandoning the 2024 deadline.

In the meantime, SpaceX will send the Starship to orbit as soon as the FAA resolves environmental questions, likely early next year. Eventually, a lunar Starship will be sent on an uncrewed mission to the lunar surface. The mission will pave the way for SpaceX’s Human Landing System taking Americans back to the moon as soon as 2025.

The lunar Starship, according to the plan, will launch into low Earth orbit. Then it will spend about a month having its fuel tanks topped off before being sent to lunar orbit. At that point, the Space Launch System will blast an Orion spacecraft into space. The Orion will dock with the lunar Starship and at least two astronauts will transfer to the SpaceX HLS. They will ride the rocket ship to the lunar surface. For the first time in over 50 years, Americans will walk on the moon in full view of billions of video screens.

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The problem is that every mission to the moon using the Orion/SLS system can only happen once a year. Moreover, NASA hopes to lower the cost of an Artemis mission to between $1 billion and $1.5 billion per flight, an immense sum.

Ars Technica suggested an intriguing alternative: The SpaceX Starship launches to low-Earth orbit and is fueled as before. However, in the alternate scenario, the Starship takes a crew of astronauts from LEO to the moon directly, with no need for the Orion/SLS system. The cost would be orders of magnitude less than the current NASA plan and could happen several times a year.

So, why is NASA contemplating using the Orion/SLS for the next 30 years? The main reason is that NASA has built a monstrously expensive, obsolete rocket at the behest of Congress seemingly to appease the people who decide the space agency’s funding. The Orion/SLS represents jobs for constituents and fat contracts for campaign contributors. For too many people in public office, all that sciencewealth creation and soft political power are just the happy side effects of having a space program.

Eventually, comparing the expendable, costly rocket developed in the old way and the cheap, nimble, reusable rocket ship that can take 100 tons of payload to the moon and Mars, created by a commercial company will be too much to tolerate. The Space Launch System likely will not fly for the next 30 years. It will serve, instead, as a monument to how not to go back to the moon or anywhere else.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.