Twelve years after it was first announced, NASA’s giant space launch system is finally making its public debut. The super-heavy rocket and Orion spacecraft will begin rolling out to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, a welcome development for a launch system plagued by delays and rising costs.
Following Thursday’s deployment, which is expected to last 11 hours, NASA will conduct a series of tests to determine launch readiness, including software systems checks and booster maintenance. After that, NASA will begin a “wet dress rehearsal” – a series of additional pre-launch tests during which the system is loaded with fuel tanks. Artemis launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson told reporters during a media address on Monday that while the wet dress could happen on April 3, the rollout should go as expected.
This happened a very long time ago. In 2010, Congress directed NASA to develop the SLS to replace the Space Shuttle, the agency’s original spaceflight workhorse. The SLS is intended as a vehicle for NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the Moon and possibly even further into the solar system.
But since then, the project has repeatedly encountered setbacks and technical difficulties. A year ago, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General released a scathing report on the costs and contracts associated with the SLS program, finding that “rising costs and delays” were well in excess of the project’s total budget. original limit. The biggest winners in this mess have undoubtedly been Aerospace First, most notably Boeing, which is leading the development of the SLS, Northrop Grumman and Aerojet, whose contracts account for 71% of the total funding spent on all SLS contracts in 2019. , according to the inspector general.
All this led to an extremely expensive project. In early March, a NASA auditor reported that the first four Artemis missions would have operating costs of $4.1 billion. The cost of building one SLS is about half that, or $2.2 billion. NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Tom Whitmyer appeared to be silent on the price, telling reporters the project is a “national investment.”
“From my point of view, this is a strong national investment. [and] International participation in our economy,” he said.
The high price of the SLS is partly due to the fact that none of the SLS stages are reusable, so each mission requires its own rocket. Unlike the SLS, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk estimated last month that the super-heavy, fully reusable Starship rocket would cost less than $10 million per launch in the coming years. After winning a $2.9 billion contract last year, SpaceX is developing a version of the rocket for NASA as part of the Artemis program.