NASA officials admit the agency's SLS rocket is unaffordable

NASA's Artemis Moon rocket is unsustainable 'at current cost levels', NASA officials told the US Government Accountability Office.
Chris Young
NASA's SLS during the launch of Artemis I.
NASA's SLS during the launch of Artemis I.

NASA 

Senior NASA officials have stated that the agency's Space Launch System (SLS) is "unaffordable", according to a report published Thursday, September 7, by the US Government Accountability Office.

Last year, the SLS powered NASA's uncrewed Orion spacecraft into orbit and on its way to the Moon for the Artemis I mission.

It was the first of many planned Artemis missions designed to send humans back to the lunar surface and eventually establish a permanent colony on the Moon.

NASA officials warn SLS is unsustainable at 'current cost levels'

The GAO report breaks down SLS program expenditures and criticizes a lack of transparency over the program's ongoing costs.

It also cites unnamed NASA officials stating that the program is unsustainable "at current cost levels," and adds that NASA "recognizes the need to improve the affordability."

"With input from NASA management, the SLS program has developed a roadmap outlining short-term and long-term strategies that it hopes will result in future cost savings," the report continued.

These include efforts to "stabilize the flight schedule", "encourage innovation", and "adjust acquisition strategies to reduce cost risk," the GAO said.

The GAO is an investigative branch of the US government charged with overseeing public spending. It has criticized spending on SLS in reports dating back to 2014. A great deal of that criticism was focused on cost overruns with the SLS program's primary contractors.

NASA's SLS problems go way back

Though NASA's Artemis I mission was a success from an operational standpoint, it was famously over budget and delayed by several years.

In an interview before the November launch, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told Interesting Engineering that the SLS program does not constitute progress.

"For Apollo, the Saturn V launched 12 times in the first five years," Garver said. "If everything goes perfectly for SLS, we'll only launch two or three times in five years. That is not progress."

"Even I could not have imagined how late and how over budget it would be," she added, stating that "and [that was back] when it was supposed to be launching in 2016, and for less than half of what it has cost."

One of the main criticisms highlighted in the GAO report is that NASA has not provided all-in cost estimates for upcoming Artemis launches.

The report also states that the GAO suggested to NASA in 2014 that it should "develop a cost baseline that captures production costs" for missions using SLS Block I — the first iteration of the rocket — but the space agency has so far failed to do so.

So far, NASA has spent nearly $12 billion on the SLS rocket and asked for a further $11 billion in its most recent budget request to fund the program over the next four years.

SLS is NASA's most powerful rocket to date, and it is partly made of components from the Space Shuttle program. The SLS program has also faced criticism due to its use of outdated technology, with most of this criticism focusing on the fact that SLS is not reusable.

However, NASA's Artemis problems have recently been compounded by the fact that they may have to delay the Artemis III lunar landing due to delays in developing the modified Starship lunar lander module for that mission.

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