Original story: NASA is conducting an internal review of the Space Launch System rocket's affordability, two sources have told Ars Technica.
Concerned by the program's outsized costs, the NASA transition team appointed by President Joe Biden initiated the study. The analysis is being led by Paul McConnaughey, a former deputy center director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, as well as its chief engineer.
The SLS rocket program has been managed by Marshall for more than a decade. Critics have derided it as a "jobs program" intended to retain employees at key centers, such as Alabama-based Marshall, as well as those at primary contractors such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Such criticism has been bolstered by frequent schedule delays—the SLS was originally due to launch in 2016, and the rocket will now launch no sooner than 2022—as well as cost overruns.
For now, costs seem to be the driving factor behind the White House's concerns. With a maximum cadence of one launch per year, the SLS rocket is expected to cost more than $2 billion per flight, and that is on top of the $20 billion NASA has already spent developing the vehicle and its ground systems. Some of the incoming officials do not believe the Artemis Moon Program is sustainable with such launch costs.
Update: After this story was published, NASA released the following statement at 11pm ET on Monday regarding the internal study:
NASA is conducting an internal study of the timing and sequence of lunar missions with available resources, and with the guidance that SLS and Orion will be providing crew transportation to the Gateway. The backbone for NASA's Moon to Mars plans are the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, ground systems at Kennedy Space Center, Gateway in lunar orbit and human landing system. We currently are alsoassessing various elements of our programs to find efficiencies and opportunities to reduce costs, and this exercise is ongoing. This will include conversations with our industry partners. Budget forecasts and internal agency reviews are common practice as they help us with long-term planning. The agency anticipates taking full advantage of the powerful SLS capabilities, and this effort will improve the current construct associated with executing the development, production and operations of the NASA's Artemis missions.
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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