NASA’s new gigantic rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), was brought to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 17, 2022, for rehearsal to the moon. NASA’s Artemis Program which aims to put the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon designed SLS to carry cargo and people into deep space.
|Image credit: NASA/ Wikimedia Commons
The Making Of SLS
The Space Launch System was approved in 2010 and initially scheduled to fly as early as 2017. But, it could not make its flight due to insufficient funds. The cost of the first four flights of the rocket was $4.1 billion each. Hence, the NASA team cancelled the launch of SLS in favour of cost-efficient and fast funding alternatives to deep space.
Prior to the SLS, NASA was using multiple programs for human spaceflight. Previous NASA spaceflight programs such as the Space Shuttle and Constellation came to an end due to financial constraints. Thus, the Obama Administration promoted the private sector to develop rockets.
But private US rockets such as ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV or SpaceX’s fledgling Falcon 9 were not up to the mark of NASA’s needs as it wanted to execute its Artemis program.
“Each launch is an opportunity for failure,” said Daniel Dumbacher, the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It was very clear to us that that multiple launch vehicle option was not going to be sustainable in the long haul.”
Thus, a new plan was made after taking into consideration all the factors. The NASA team decided to recollect a chunk of the dead Constellation program and change one of the rockets made for Constellation called Ares V into SLS that could take humans into deep space. The engine used in this rocket was the same used for propelling the Shuttle. Orion, an underdeveloped crew capsule for Constellation, was placed on top of the SLS to carry people into space. Thus, the Constellation program and Shuttle vehicle were revived under the SLS program.
The idea to use parts of the Shuttle and Constellation program was with the thinking that it would make the development of SLS quicker and cheaper. However, Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator who oversaw SLS’s creation, was not convinced with this idea. But, in 2010, under the NASA Authorization Act, mandated the creation of the Space Launch System and Orion.
An Extended Journey Than Expected
The journey of SLS was full of hurdles. In 2014, NASA told the US government that the making of the SLS rocket would cost around $7 billion through its first flight. However, in November 2021, the agency said that the cost would run into $11 billion and the budgets for Orion and other ground infrastructure required to launch the vehicle were also higher.
The SLS also suffered significant delays. The first flight of SLS was five years behind schedule, and its future flights are also delayed. Though the Space Launch System faced financial overruns, the development of this rocket was easy and cheap as it was built from contracts that were merely in operation for decades.
Several audits by NASA’s internal teams and the U.S. government found that damaged tanks, wielding issues, and other difficulties throughout the development of SLS were the causes of significant delays.
Many auditors pointed out that the Orion and SLS contracts were the major sources of conflicts. NASA rewarded the contractors with a cost-plus contract to build the rocket. A cost-plus contract is a contract in which the contractor is paid for a project’s expenses and extra fees for the job which implies that the more time the project takes to complete, the more money the contractor receives. Experts said that the cost-plus contract was not beneficial for NASA as the organisation still faced losses.
“Doing programs like this — the incentives are backwards,” said Garver. “You pay contractors more the longer they take. And that’s just not how we should be doing things that we know how to do.”
Future Of SLS
This summer NASA is planning to launch the SLS with an empty Orion capsule on its top around the moon. The astronauts will set on board the next flight to return to the moon.
It is predicted that the Space Launch System (SLS) is the last government-funded spacecraft to be launched into space. Also, it is expected that the future of space exploration will go into the hands of private space agencies. An American space company, SpaceX owned by Elon Musk is creating a mega new Starship vehicle in Texas that is more capable than SLS. Elon Musk claims that the cost to develop this vehicle is 5 to 10 percent of the cost of NASA’s Saturn V rocket, which carried people to the moon in the past. This means that the cost of the development of the Starship vehicle is less than the SLS.
This is all Musk’s speculation and he still needs to prove the working of the Starship. Also, this vehicle will require multiple refuellings to land on the moon. However, NASA has planned to sign a $2.9 billion contract with SpaceX to develop Starship as a lander that can carry humans to the moon’s surface.
Now, SpaceX and other similar companies such as Blue Origin are becoming advanced to launch space exploration programs like SLS.
“I think it’s going to be the last rocket that’s done by the government, surely,” said Dumbacher. “With the experience, we’ve seen with SpaceX and Blue Origin and emerging space economy, there is no need to go do another launch vehicle the way we started one in 2010.”