On NASA's Space Launch System (SLS)
and Orion Spacecraft Programs

By David Brandt-Erichsen
May 2012


I have seen little enthusiasm about SLS/Orion within the space movement (in which I have been involved for 34 years), but many space enthusiasts consider these programs to be “better than nothing” (which is about the best I've heard in their favor).

But I ask you: Would you consider it “better than nothing” if NASA designed and built its own automobiles for $2.5 million each rather than go to a local car dealer and buy them for $30,000 each?  Or would you consider that to be an insane policy that should be immediately cancelled?  I maintain that the SLS/Orion program is the exact equivalent and should be immediately cancelled.

I have two names for the Space Launch System (SLS):

  1. The Monster Cost Pork Rocket to Nowhere (MCPoRN).

  2. The cement overshoes of the space program.

NASA is very secretive about the cost of SLS because they are not proud of it.  NASA even managed to get an independent cost analysis of SLS by Booz Allen Hamilton to be published without actually giving any cost numbers!  See:

However, costs and plans have leaked out in the following two articles (a later article in the New York Times pegged costs even higher):

In brief, the projected schedule and costs are as follows:

  • First launch of SLS in December 2017, carrying an unmanned Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV, otherwise known as Orion) around the Moon and back. Cost: Between $17 and $22 billion.

  • Second launch of SLS in August 2021, carrying a manned Orion vehicle around the Moon and back. Cost: An additional $12 to $16 billion.

  • Projected flight rate beyond that is one mission per year, alternating between manned and cargo missions, at a cost of about $1.2 billion per flight.

Note up front that with a flight rate of one per year, SLS can pull off a few stunts but it is essentially impossible to ever build a lunar or Mars base, or for that matter, really do anything particularly useful in establishing a true beachhead in space (hence, Rocket to Nowhere).  The rocket is just too expensive to use.

Now let’s compare these costs with alternatives, in particular with the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, scheduled to launch in 2014, well before SLS.  See:

The lowest costs listed above for the first two flights of SLS would total $29 billion to launch two 70-ton payloads for test flights which would duplicate the Apollo 8 flight of 44 years ago. This equals 140 tons to orbit. (A later version of SLS could launch 130 tons in a single launch but is not scheduled until 2032).

In comparison, $29 billion could buy 226 flights of Falcon Heavy (which has zero development cost to taxpayers).  At 53 tons each this equals 12,000 tons, or 85 times more payload to orbit for the same cost.  Do you think maybe NASA could figure out a way to build a lunar base if it used that kind of launch capacity instead?  I rather suspect it could.

With this enormous cost difference, does SLS represent a sane space policy? 

You might argue that Falcon Heavy has not yet flown (although neither has SLS), and that there is no guarantee it will work (whereas nobody argues that NASA won't be able to get SLS to work). But it is unlikely that Falcon Heavy won't work, and it would be even more unlikely if we had a rational space policy.  First of all, Falcon Heavy is a scaled up version of an already proven rocket, the Falcon 9 (Intelsat has already made an agreement with SpaceX for a Falcon Heavy launch).  Second, even if it did have problems at first (true of all rocket systems, even NASA's), if NASA wanted to purchase Falcon Heavy flights and there were severe problems with it, under a rational space policy NASA could send over a few of its best engineers and offer a few million dollars in bonuses (chickenfeed) for those most instrumental in solving those problems. I betcha that would work. The result would be billions saved and a system we could actually DO something with.

The budget for SLS for fiscal year 2012 was $1.8 billion and for fiscal 2013, $1.9 billion. That in itself could have bought 29 Falcon Heavy flights (1,500 tons to orbit).  SpaceX has also stated they could fully develop a 150-ton payload rocket for $2.5 billion (less than what has already been spent on SLS) with payments to be made only after reaching specified milestones along the way.  (Cost per ton to orbit of this “Super Heavy” is projected to be the same as for the Falcon Heavy.)

The budget for Orion for fiscal year 2013 is $1 billion.  Although the price of a Dragon spacecraft has not been announced, an upper limit can be inferred from the total cost of the NASA contract with SpaceX, and it is safe to say that just this single year's budget for Orion would buy several Dragons off the shelf. 

Update: "Between 2011 and 2013, the Orion project received only about $3.6 billion." (Emphasis added. From Orlando Sentinel article NASA watchdog cites Orion development problems, August 18, 2013.)

Dragon is superior to Orion in both cost and function, and unlike Orion it has already flown successfully. The human-rated version of Dragon (not yet flown) will be able to “land on any solid surface in the solar system” (Orion can only do a water landing).  Dragon is designed to be re-usable. Orion will be thrown away after one mission. Like Orion, Dragon can carry a crew of seven and has a heat shield designed for the higher re-entry velocities of a lunar return. The only advantage of Orion is that it is a bit roomier, but considering the cost difference this is quite trivial (and if it really mattered, you could still fly two Dragons for less than one Orion).

And Dragons are available off the shelf from an existing factory.  SpaceX has stated: “Depending on demand, Dragon production is planned for a rate of one every six to eight weeks.”  It just makes no sense to duplicate this at much higher cost.  That is an insane space policy, equivalent to having NASA design and tool a new car factory instead of buying their cars off the shelf.

The price of a Bigelow habitat has not been announced, but I strongly suspect you could buy a Dragon plus a Bigelow habitat for less than the cost of one Orion.

See this 4-minute video comparing Orion and Dragon:

(The video does not point out that Dragon can land on any solid surface in the solar system, which Orion cannot.)

Regarding pork, it is well known that SLS (sometimes called the “Senate Launch System”) was foisted on NASA by politicians who have particular rocket companies in their districts. Nobody ever pushed for SLS because it was a Good Idea, but only because it benefited particular companies that had built space shuttle components. There is no other justification for SLS.

The purpose of NASA is to research cutting edge space technologies. SLS/Orion does not do that. It is time to recognize that NASA should no longer be in the rocket building business but should buy such components off the shelf instead. They are now available off the shelf, which was not true during the Apollo and Shuttle programs.

SLS/Orion are dead ends that cannot possibly succeed because (1) we cannot afford to use them and (2) because they are redundant duplications of vastly cheaper alternatives. Eventually these facts will become so obvious and undeniable even to politicians that the programs will collapse under their own weight and be cancelled, and the sooner this happens the better.

If SLS ever does actually fly, I will not celebrate but instead will mourn. Flying SLS would be a monument to colossal stupidity.



Update. A May 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) states that development of SLS through its first flight in 2017, the ground systems for that effort, and the first two Orion flights in 2017 and 2021 are estimated by NASA to cost between $19-22 billion as follows: SLS, $7.7-8.6 billion; ground systems, $2.8-3.1 billion; and Orion., $8.5-10.3 billion. This does not include an additional $4.7 billion in Orion development costs incurred during the Constellation program.