NASA wants to outsource its financial woes.
So the agency has made an open call for U.S. aerospace firms to help it "maximize the long-term efficiency and sustainability" of its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, along with all of its ground systems. In simpler terms, NASA wants a company to find a way to build the SLS at 50% of Boeing's price, and continue to support launches for the agency through the 2050s, according to an official request.
The SLS cost nearly triple the $10-billion projected development cost when it was announced in 2011. But The White House once said the SLS would cost $2 billion to launch annually. So anyone who can do it for $1 billion or less, step up to the plate.
NASA wants a 'more sustainable' SLS rocket
This comes as NASA prepares to finally launch its new SLS rocket, which Boeing was contracted to build through an extremely long, difficult, and pricey development process that took more than a decade to bring to completion. Called the heavy-lift SLS rocket, the Boeing-developed vehicle is slated to lift an Orion crew capsule into space sometime in the first half of 2022. But in the recent request from NASA, the agency wants to continue flying the SLS for "30 years or more" on nationally-funded missions. The agency also wants the new rocket to transform into a "sustainable and affordable system for moving humans and large cargo payloads to cislunar and deep-space destinations," according to an initial Ars Technica report.
NASA also wants to remain the "anchor tenant" of the launch system, with expectations to contract one crewed flight per year, for 10 or more years. But the agency is also open to "market" its new launch vehicle to other interests, which could be federal, scientific, or even commercial. But most notably, NASA thinks the key to making the SLS more "sustainable" involves not only sharing use of the rocket for private launches, but also finding a private contractor to build and launch the SLS with a 50% or greater discount compared to the present day's industry "baseline per flight cost."
NASA has spent $30 billion developing the SLS
NASA hasn't shared what this baseline coast is as of writing, but in 2019 the White House Office of Management and Budget gave an estimation on the cost of launching a single SLS annually at "over $2 billion." The U.S. space agency didn't deny the estimation, but it also hasn't explicitly confirmed any figure whatsoever to taxpayers about the projected costs of the SLS. But whatever it is, it's enough to convince NASA that it should be half (or less), and should be capable of carrying astronauts and whoever else can pay to hitch a ride into space until the middle of the 21st century. Compared to every other launch system NASA has used, this seems like a big commitment.
However, it's not impossible. The SLS was initially designed in 2010 and officially announced in 2011, with hopes that it would enter space by the end of 2016, for a total cost of $10 billion. In the past, former Florida Senator Bill Nelson said "If we can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop." Ten years and $30 billion years later, NASA is still open for business, but now that Nelson has become the administrator of NASA, it seems the agency is taking steps to lower the financial barrier to developing functional low-Earth orbit and deep-space launch systems. And, assuming the SLS does actually launch in 2022, Nelson's NASA might get its wish.