NASA has previously given more than $1 billion to Aerojet to "restart" production of the space shuttle era engines and a contract for six new ones. So, according to the space agency, NASA has spent $3.5 billion for a total of 24 rocket engines. That comes to $146 million per engine.
The NASA news release says that Aerojet has "implemented a plan to reduce the cost of the engines by as much as 30 percent," noting the use of more advanced manufacturing techniques.
[...] NASA designed these brilliant engines in the 1970s for the space shuttle program, during which they each flew multiple launches. A total of 46 engines were built for the shuttle at an estimated cost of $40 million[*] per engine. But now these formerly reusable engines will be flown a single time on the SLS rocket and then dropped into the ocean.
There are four engines on a Space Launch System rocket. At this price, the engines for an SLS rocket, alone, will cost more than $580 million. This does not include the costs of fabricating the rocket's large core stage, towering solid-rocket boosters, an upper stage, or the costs of test, transportation, storage, and integration. With engine prices like these, it seems reasonable to assume that the cost of a single SLS launch will remain $2 billion into perpetuity.
[...] There are a lot of things one could buy in the aerospace industry for $146 million. One might, for example, buy at least six RD-180 engines from Russia. These engines have more than twice the thrust of a space shuttle main engine. Or, one might go to United Launch Alliance's Rocket Builder website and purchase two basic Atlas V rocket launches. You could buy three "flight-proven" Falcon 9 launches. One might even buy a Falcon Heavy launch, which has two-thirds the lift capacity of the Space Launch System at one-twentieth the price[...]
[...] SpaceX is building the Raptor rocket engine to power its Super Heavy rocket and Starship upper stage. The Raptor has slightly more power at sea level than the RS-25, and is designed for dozens of uses. According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, it costs less than $1 million to build a Raptor engine. The company has already built a couple dozen of them on its own dime. So there's that.
[*] Not adjusted for inflation.
NASA has asked the US aerospace industry how it would go about "maximizing the long-term efficiency and sustainability" of the Space Launch System rocket and its associated ground systems.
[...] In its request NASA says it would like to fly the SLS rocket for "30 years or more" as a national capability. Moreover, the agency wants the rocket to become a "sustainable and affordable system for moving humans and large cargo payloads to cislunar and deep-space destinations."
[...] Among the rocket's chief architects was then-Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who steered billions of dollars to Kennedy Space Center in his home state for upgraded ground systems equipment to support the rocket. Back in 2011, he proudly said the rocket would be delivered on time and on budget.
"This rocket is coming in at the cost of... not only what we estimated in the NASA Authorization act, but less," Nelson said at the time. "The cost of the rocket over a five- to six-year period in the NASA authorization bill was to be no more than $11.5 billion. This costs $10 billion for the rocket." Later, he went further, saying, "If we can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop."
After more than 10 years, and more than $30 billion spent on the rocket and its ground systems, NASA has not closed up shop. Rather, Nelson has ascended to become the space agency's administrator.
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