It's no secret that I'm a big space travel fan. Putting people and things in space represents everything that's good about humans as a species. It proves what we can do while drawing attention to the fact that we are in fact small and relatively insignificant relative to the cosmos. There's something deeply satisfying about that.
That said, the Space Launch System (SLS) should just be abandoned. It's become a politically motivated nostalgia trip intended as a throwback to when we put men on the moon before the Soviets. (It was also when we insisted that black folks used separate restrooms in NASA facilities, so human achievement is relative.) Even the former NASA boss says the program should just fade into obscurity. I mean, this is a rocket that uses essentially the same solid rocket boosters as the Space Shuttle, and we're entirely too familiar with the risks of that technology.
Let's do the math: So far, NASA has received about $20 billion to develop the rocket and operate its ground systems. The cost of the hardware and a single flight will be $2 billion, and if everything goes well, that rocket will fall in the ocean and never be used again.
Nothing flying today can carry what SLS can, but SLS also isn't flying so that may be a silly comparison. But for giggles, let's compare the human cargo version of SLS and the privately flown SpaceX Falcon Heavy. SLS will be able to life about 95 metric tons, again, at a cost of $2 billion per flight. Falcon Heavy, which already exists today, can lift about 64 metric tons, and costs between $90 and $150 million, depending on whether or not you're OK with flight-proven boosters and the kind of orbit you need. If you're clever and can find a way to split up your cargo and assemble it in space, then one could argue that you could fly Heavy 13 to 20 times for the cost of one SLS flight. Those are some pretty staggering economics.
But OK, let's say that you really do need to put something much heavier in space, all in one piece. The full blown cargo configured SLS can lift 130 metric tons, about twice the cargo of Falcon Heavy, though we have no idea what the cost of this SLS configuration might be. It just happens that SpaceX is also developing a gigantic rocket system called Super Heavy and Starship, the names of the booster and primary vehicle, respectively. They're targeting a lift capability of 150 metric tons for that system. We can certainly expect this system to be fully reusable, but we don't know what the cost will be. Elon Musk has suggested that the fuel plus operational cost could be as little as $2 million per flight, but he's been known to say ridiculous things (though admittedly, some of them come true). But let's go back to that $2 billion benchmark. So far, on its own dime and with no specific customers but intention to go to the moon and Mars, the company has been rapidly blowing up pressurized fuel tanks and doing propulsive hops of prototypes. Think about that... they've had hardware actually leave the ground for a system that has only been in development in earnest for about two years, while SLS has spent $20 billion in eight years and not left the ground.
Considering the extraordinary spending of the federal government in general, especially the last two years, why are we bothering? If you want to champion American capability, let the private sector shoulder that expense, because they're doing a better job and already put humans in space and brought them home safely.
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