NASA's mighty SLS megarocket for Artemis moonshots 'unaffordable' for sustained exploration, audit finds

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Bill, I think your conclusion about what will thrive and what will whither is correct, but it seems as though you are comparing apples to oranges with the numbers, so far. The real cost of each program is a combination of how much it cost to develop the system and how much it costs per launch once developed. The intended number of launches by the two competitors is vastly different, and clearly favors SpaceX. But, so far, Artemis has one flight and SpaceX has none that put anything into orbit. Total costs divided by successfully inserted LEO payloads would favor Artemis at this point, but that is expected to change drastically. Do we even know how much SpaceX has spent on developing Super Heavy and Starship so far?

It has always seemed weird to me that NASA is relying on other contractors to get things like "NASA's" lunar lander to lunar orbit independently of NASA. If they can do that, why not just have them take the NASA astronauts with them to lunar orbit?

I think Artemis is basically the U.S. staying in the game until private companies actually succeed, in case the private companies do not succeed, or do not succeed faster than other countries' competing national space programs. At this point, it looks like SpaceX is one of the 2 major contenders, along with China, for actually doing something on the Moon I expect Congress will redirect NASA to use commercial transport for future Moon science missions as soon as it is demonstrated to be reliably available.
 
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Bill, I think your conclusion about what will thrive and what will whither is correct, but it seems as though you are comparing apples to oranges with the numbers, so far. The real cost of each program is a combination of how much it cost to develop the system and how much it costs per launch once developed. The intended number of launches by the two competitors is vastly different, and clearly favors SpaceX. But, so far, Artemis has one flight and SpaceX has none that put anything into orbit. Total costs divided by successfully inserted LEO payloads would favor Artemis at this point, but that is expected to change drastically. Do we even know how much SpaceX has spent on developing Super Heavy and Starship so far?

It has always seemed weird to me that NASA is relying on other contractors to get things like "NASA's" lunar lander to lunar orbit independently of NASA. If they can do that, why not just have them take the NASA astronauts with them to lunar orbit?

I think Artemis is basically the U.S. staying in the game until private companies actually succeed, in case the private companies do not succeed, or do not succeed faster than other countries' competing national space programs. At this point, it looks like SpaceX is one of the 2 major contenders, along with China, for actually doing something on the Moon I expect Congress will redirect NASA to use commercial transport for future Moon science missions as soon as it is demonstrated to be reliably available.
Actually, we "do* know the development cost (so far) of STARSHIP.
From Wikipedia:

"SpaceX Chief Financial Officer Bret Johnsen disclosed in court that SpaceX has invested more than $3 billion into the Starbase facility and Starship systems from July 2014 to May 2023. Elon Musk stated in April 2023 that SpaceX expects to spend about $2 billion on Starship development in 2023."

Plus the $3B Nasa is paying for HLS. Maybe. That might end up paying for the three/four prototypes doing the orbital refueling and moon flight tests.

Note that that includes the multiple boosters and Starships sitting at Starbase waiting to launch. Its not just one vehicle. As to why Starship hasn't been to orbit, don't forget the 18Month delay inflicted on them by their enemies.

But you're right that it's not oranges to oranges; SLS is a congressionally mandated kludge of a pork barrel jobs program for old space, to develop a single vehicle, whereas Starship is a commercial program to develop and build a whole *family* of vehicles, some reusable, some disposable, and others Platforms for space telescopes and habitats, plus two factories and two launch facilities with as many as four launch towers.

A full life cycle cost analysis of the two full programs is not going to be 5000 to 1.
It will be much worse because of the ground facilities and the habitats. Especially because of the ROI.

What I'm keeping an eye out for isn't how Starship performs. Rather the question is what SpaceX does with the capabilities they are unleashing. Heavy lift is the least of the potential of the Starship family.

With SLS, the moon is its ceiling, for Starship it is the floor.
 
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But that is based on some assumptions about the number of launches and the manufacturing processes to make the vehicles, plus the (assumptions to some degree) reusability of the launch vehicles. Just saying that SpaceX development costs are far from negligible, maybe even compared to the SLS, which is using a lot of repurposed parts and launch facilities, while SpaceX had to built all of that from scratch. It doesn't look to me like the actual hardware is cheaper by a factor of 5000, so much as the number of vehicles made per manufacturing infrastructure and the number of uses per vehicle has provided a much larger denominator for cost per launch. Of course, there is also the efficiency factor of SpaceX vs entrenched company processes, but I still think the estimated cost per launch is reduced by building more vehicles and using them more often in the commercial industry compared to the few-and-far-between NASA missions with one-and-done vehicles.

Whatever, I think we agree that the Artemis program hardware is not likely to be long-lived, and that NASA will soon be buying rides on SpaceX vehicles. Still, the Artemis Program is an international consortium that has political as well as economic goals, and I expect the Program to continue, even with commercial launch and other non-government infrastructure. That seems to be the actual plan.

NASA will probably also try to develop some competition for SpaceX, to be sure that U.S. national interests are not damaged by some problems with one company. Not to mention that NASA probably does not want to be stuck with monopolistic pricing by a contractor that is not beholden to it financially. NASA seems to be hoping that Blue Origin will get its act together and provide some real competition for SpaceX.
 
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But that is based on some assumptions about the number of launches and the manufacturing processes to make the vehicles, plus the (assumptions to some degree) reusability of the launch vehicles. Just saying that SpaceX development costs are far from negligible, maybe even compared to the SLS, which is using a lot of repurposed parts and launch facilities, while SpaceX had to built all of that from scratch. It doesn't look to me like the actual hardware is cheaper by a factor of 5000, so much as the number of vehicles made per manufacturing infrastructure and the number of uses per vehicle has provided a much larger denominator for cost per launch. Of course, there is also the efficiency factor of SpaceX vs entrenched company processes, but I still think the estimated cost per launch is reduced by building more vehicles and using them more often in the commercial industry compared to the few-and-far-between NASA missions with one-and-done vehicles.

Whatever, I think we agree that the Artemis program hardware is not likely to be long-lived, and that NASA will soon be buying rides on SpaceX vehicles. Still, the Artemis Program is an international consortium that has political as well as economic goals, and I expect the Program to continue, even with commercial launch and other non-government infrastructure. That seems to be the actual plan.

NASA will probably also try to develop some competition for SpaceX, to be sure that U.S. national interests are not damaged by some problems with one company. Not to mention that NASA probably does not want to be stuck with monopolistic pricing by a contractor that is not beholden to it financially. NASA seems to be hoping that Blue Origin will get its act together and provide some real competition for SpaceX.
Artemis goals are 90% political and 10% scientific and only exists because of China's stated goal of a moon base and their history of claiming sovereignty over other countries' (and international) territories. See: nine dash line, new oficial China map, and years of ignoring international law.

If China's economy were to crash, ending their manned space program, Artemis would in an instant go the way of NASA's CONSTELLATION (not to be confused with the exploration organization of the same name in the brilliant game recently released, STARFIELD). Purely political, yes.
 
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Artemis goals are 90% political and 10% scientific and only exists because of China's stated goal of a moon base and their history of claiming sovereignty over other countries' (and international) territories. See: nine dash line, new oficial China map, and years of ignoring international law.

If China's economy were to crash, ending their manned space program, Artemis would in an instant go the way of NASA's CONSTELLATION (not to be confused with the exploration organization of the same name in the brilliant game recently released, STARFIELD). Purely political, yes.
Agreed, as a lifelong, avid fan of space exploration---It's political from a space race persepecitve, similar to the 1st-Man-on-the-Moon goal of the Apollo program. This time around it's the 1st human on Mars with a Moon base. The Artemis goals are about human space exploration and basic scientific discovery, not sustainability (or profitability?) necessarily. Unless the sustainability is whether it bankrupts the US, then who cares? At only $93 billion, even with major cost overruns, the money is much better spent on Artemis and the SLS, than geopolitical military conflicts and wars. Which effort produces and which one destroys???
 
I think the "sustainability" issue is not whether it bankrupts a nation, but whether the nation has other, less expensive options to reach the same goals.

But one of the goals that is re-emerging from the conflict in Ukraine and the increasing tensions with China is that a nation needs sufficient internal capabilities to meet its goals without interference by other nations. So, space programs with peaceful goals are a selling point for the development and maintenance of in-house technological capabilities that can also have military applications.

With that other goal in mind, I understand why the U.S. is continuing to provide support to Boeing and other industrial entities long after their cost effectiveness has been superceded by newer companies. But, that can't go on forever. We are already seeing the type of consolidations in the launch industry that we have seen in the aircraft production industry following World War II.
 
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Ariane 6 will put 21,650 to LEO for US$120M, cost is $5,500/kg. This plan is not sustainable.
Neither is Galileo nor the A380.
But some capabilities are funded for non-economic reasons, especially dual use systems like targetting constellations, heavy lift aircraft (especially in the age of RAPID DRAGON), and launch vehicles.
Particularly in light that with globalization fracturing and the US ever more isolationist there is no guarantee those capabilities will be available when needed.
National security can't be outsourced to low cost bidders.
 
I'd Starship's use of the Gamma" phase of its Inconel Niobium alloy in its engine is why it is reusable for a few hours. SLS is a 90% Al alloy in its engines.
Probably SpaceX had 10000 parts they wanted to rotate in the 1st 4 or 5 launches and get the odds above 50% @ #4 or #5. SpaceX flew too close to the Sun on fins of wax in not using parts good enough to cause a Falcon 9 level of pad damage.
 
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I think the "sustainability" issue is not whether it bankrupts a nation, but whether the nation has other, less expensive options to reach the same goals.

But one of the goals that is re-emerging from the conflict in Ukraine and the increasing tensions with China is that a nation needs sufficient internal capabilities to meet its goals without interference by other nations. So, space programs with peaceful goals are a selling point for the development and maintenance of in-house technological capabilities that can also have military applications.

With that other goal in mind, I understand why the U.S. is continuing to provide support to Boeing and other industrial entities long after their cost effectiveness has been superceded by newer companies. But, that can't go on forever. We are already seeing the type of consolidations in the launch industry that we have seen in the aircraft production industry following World War II.
It can't go on forever...on cost plus contracts.
It can on fixed price contracts.
Compare SLS to STARLINER. Both over budget, over schedule, and buggy.
Who is bearing the brunt of sloppy management and engineering.

There is nothing magical about SpaceX tech--most of their basic tech is 90's vintage NASA. What makes SpaceX world class is a visionary CEO, a brilliant COO (Gwynne Shotwell doesn't get enough credit) and a small army of superb engineers set loose to do their best (unlike NASA, where equally competent people are hamstrung at every turn by the idiot politicians--do we really need to list all their foibles?).

The same is true about the rest of the military industrial complex. For contrast, look to the cost effectiveness of South Korea's military contractors, producing gear as good as any out of California or Germany at significantly lower costs. For them it's life and death so they can't afford to play goldplating cost-plus games.

The US has the scientific and enginering talent to keep us going for at least two more generations, easy. The managers and political will? TBD.

It won't be the tech or economics that bankrupts the country.
 
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