Over $30 Billion and 33 Years to Turn Space Shuttle Components into a Super Heavy Lift Rocket

In August, 2019, SLS (Space Launch System) managers for Boeing and Northrop Grumman gave that timeline at an aerospace industry forum. Boeing is in charge of assembling the rocket’s core stage, and Northrop Grumman is building the big solid-rocket boosters that will provide most of SLS’s lift off the launch pad.

The SLS is a Space Shuttle rocket stack without the orbiter. It will have taken over $30 billion and 33 years to make an expendable Space Shuttle rocket stack without an orbiter.

We will spend another $6 to 8 billion over the next two to three years to get to the first unmanned test flight. This mission could be done with less than $1 billion and two SpaceX Heavy launches. The SpaceX Heavy has already flown three times.

Two SpaceX Falcon Heavies could launch the Orion capsule in 2020 and complete the mission for $5 billion lower cost and probably one year sooner.

Exploration Mission 1 is going to use the SLS to launch the Orion, its Service Module, and the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) into orbit around the Earth. SLS separates from the components at 157 kilometers. Orion operates independently, and the ICPS propels the craft towards the Moon. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy could put the Orion and its Service Module into GTO. This would be closer to the moon. The Orion Service Module would be able to complete the trans-lunar injection maneuver with enough propellant in reserve to perform any necessary course corrections. A second Falcon Heavy would be needed to bring the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage to join it to the Orion in order to have the fuel needed to slow down and enter lunar orbit.

Five major SLS components have been joined for the first time this week. NASA finished assembling and joining the main structural components for the largest rocket stage the agency has built since the Saturn V that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Engineers at the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans connected the last of the five sections of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket core stage on Sept. 19. However, they have not inserted the rocket engines and have not completed other assembly.

The next step is the so-called “Green Run” test where the assembled core stage of the rocket is fired in a test stand to see how it performs. The core is expected to be finished at NASA’s assembly plant near New Orleans and ready for the Green Run by the end of 2019. It will be shipped by barge to the Green Run test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center where it will take another few months to set up the test. “We’ll probably fire it off in the second or third quarter of (2020),” Boeing SLS team lead Robert Broeren told the same conference.

It will take still more time to assess the test and get the SLS core to the launch site at Kennedy Space Center. “From (arrival at Kennedy), with the integration of Orion, wet dress rehearsal and that sort of thing, there’s probably two quarters, maybe two and a half quarters, of work to get to a launch date,” he estimated. “So, most likely early in 2021. It could happen earlier, it could happen later.”

Based upon the history of the SLS, Nextbigfuture would make bets on later than early 2021.

The first SLS launch dubbed Artemis 1 will send an uncrewed Orion capsule around the Moon on a three-week journey. The second launch, Artemis 2, will send astronauts aboard Orion on the same journey.

“If Artemis 1 launches no later than mid-2021, there will be no impact to Artemis 2,” Bridenstine told a senator this month who questioned the program’s schedule and cost.

Robert Zubrin described his work on the Ares team in 1988 that made the design for what became the SLS (Space Launch System). The thinking was that the Ares would be flying by 1994 as it was only the Space Shuttle stack without the orbiter.

Robert Zubrin described the 1988 work on the Ares which became SLS.

The RS-25 is the engine that powered the space shuttle during 30 years of operation. The RS-25 is one of the most tested large rocket engines in history, with more than 3,000 starts and more than 1 million seconds of total ground test and flight firing time. The SLS Program has an inventory of 16 RS25 flight engines, built by Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California.

ASA Space Launch system is reusing and modifying Shuttle rockets and facilities. SLS and Orion will cost the United States more than $30 billion dollars before it has completed a single full launch. This will go over $40 billion by the time the system is ready to launch NASA astronauts.

$14 billion has been spent on the rockets between 2011 and 2018. This does not include billions more spent refurbishing and modifying aging Saturn and Shuttle-derived launch infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center.

Orion’s development has cost the U.S. about $16 billion since 2006. $4-6 billion more will be spent between now and 2023. This does not include the costs of production and operations once development is complete.

The Orion space capsule is NOT capable of landing on the Moon, much less Mars.

SOURCES- NASA, Robert Zubrin
Written By Brian Wang, Nextbigfuture.com

29 thoughts on “Over $30 Billion and 33 Years to Turn Space Shuttle Components into a Super Heavy Lift Rocket”

  1. Didn’t they completely rebuild the outer shell from the ground up after Challenger? The mating between segments was so different it can’t have been a bolt-on improvement.

    Sounds like the booster of Theseus to me.

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  2. The space shuttle didn’t fail for lack of understanding. It was poor launch safety management.

    Challenger failed because they ordered the launch outside of previously approved temperature ranges. contrary to the warnings of Morton Thiokol engineers, and contrary to their own launch rules. They got impatient due to multiple launch delays, and put launching ahead of safety rules.

    Columbia burned on reentry because, although they KNEW the shuttle had been damaged on takeoff, and knew this could result in everybody dying on reentry, NASA management refused to comply with engineer demands for an inspection of the impact site. Their reasoning was that “it was better not to know”, because there “wasn’t anything they could do anyway”.

    Which was a lie, but there wasn’t anything they could have done that they wanted to do. If they’d known for sure the shuttle was damaged, public opinion might have forced a hasty rescue mission that NASA really did not want to be forced to try. So they carefully avoided finding out if the shuttle was doomed.

    The shedding of insulation from the external tank, by the way, was due to reformulating the spray on insulation to be “green” instead of reliable.

    Basically both those disasters were a result of NASA management having higher priorities than safety. Much higher priorities.

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  3. Exactly…experimental work that private industry may not be able to invest upon, or are barred from as in the (as current) nuclear realm. Saddening and maddening how the “corporatacracy” and bureaucracy has hijacked so much wealth-and then so boldly and badly misspent it.

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  4. If you believe the wiki page on space shuttle side boosters… they reused them 100s of times with final version still having components from the first shuttle flight…

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  5. The irony is that the company that developed the space shuttle engines, rs25, is out of business because they took too long between end of Space shuttle and first sls… that’s why they only have 4 spare engines…

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  6. That’s called being ultraconservative… space shuttle parts are well understood therefore they can’t fail… ummm… welll … maybe not… maybe there’s a better way???

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  7. Isnt there thousands of military aircraft parked and rusting in some desert somewhere because they cant find a use for them? Those might represent a few million in wasted development and production costs.

    SLS has become like a religious jihad to some all the while they ignore other far egregious waste with far less utility.

    “For example: USS Zumwalt $7.5 trillion” is that unit cost or some potentially massive fleet cost? The best i could find says 1 costs 4.4 billion.

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  8. There are a lot of dairy cows in the United States.

    Some American companies divert huge amounts of money (from taxpayers’ pockets) for not much in return. For example: USS Zumwalt $7.5 trillion, USS Ronald Reagan $4.3 billion, USS America $3.4 billion, USS Gerald R. Ford $13 billion, USS Fort Worth $1 billion, the F35 program $1.5 TRILLION, SLS-Orion $44 billion, …, …, …

    And the Pentagon is spending nearly $2 billion… a day.

    A U.S. Navy plan to build a 308 ship fleet will cost a whopping $566 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

    US Navy:
    · 1987: 594 vessels.
    · 2019: 287 vessels.

    That’s great. Let’s keep up the momentum! …

    Meanwhile the Chinese are building aircraft carriers, cruisers, rockets, jets, and many other stuff, at a cost 10 or 20 times lower than the United States whose ties to the military-industrial complex is at an unprecedented level of corruption.

    In 15 or 20 years the Chinese army will be more powerful than the United States.

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  9. It’s ironic that the whole point of using the space shuttle components was to save money and accelerate the design process. So, naturally, NASA does it in a way that accomplishes neither of these goals.

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  10. Last chemical rocket anyway, and probably last full vehicle. They might keep doing interesting work on more advanced propulsion systems.

    Really, that’s what NASA should be doing: advanced technology that private industry isn’t ready to risk yet (or, in the case of fission, isn’t allowed to do).

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  11. On top of all that, the Shuttle main engines are expensive, in part because they were designed for reusability. The Saturn V’s F-1 cost $4,431 per kilonewton. The RS-25 cost $26,881 per kilonewton, but with reuse on the Shuttle got that down to $1,414/kN per flight. Naturally, NASA’s cost-plus contractors decided they were the perfect thing to throw away on every flight.

    Of course, the SpaceX Raptor is only about $1000/kN without reuse, and even more reusable. That’s no real knock on the original RS-25 engineers, working four decades earlier.

    Source of figures, 38 minutes in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbH1ZDImaI8

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  12. I think that this is the same as fighter jets: I f you need so large time to develop and manufacure a machine nowadays, it is very probable that the final equipment became obsolete and overcome by others before the launching date. And at an incredible cost.

    SLS should have been finished in the 90. Each decade of delay increased the probability to be obsolete and variable costs.

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  13. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy could put the Orion and its Service Module into GTO. This would be closer to the moon. The Orion Service Module would be able to complete the trans-lunar injection maneuver with enough propellant in reserve to perform any necessary course corrections. 

    This isn’t even close to true. The Orion can’t even make it to NRHO from where an FHE would leave it, to say nothing of getting it back to TEI for reentry–it’s 450 m/s short.

    On the other hand, either the Frankenrocket (ICPS + Orion on top of the FH S2, which is way too tall), or a distributed launch of the ICPS and Orion on two different launchers, at least have the delta-v to work. But it’s a non-trivial amount of work to do this–as would be just putting an Orion on the FH S2, because Orion can’t be horizontally integrated.

    If you committed to using commercial launchers to put Orion into TLI right now, money saved from SLS, the R&D cost of the CLV work, and the launch cost savings net out to a substantial reduction in the launch costs for Artemis. But the longer SLS hangs around, the more cost accumulates from SLS development, until cancelling it actually costs more than just gritting your teeth and living with it until Starship comes along with a crew solution. When I looked at this, it seemed that the crossover point was at about Artemis 3.

    I wish I was optimistic that SLS will be gone by then, but I kinda doubt it.

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  14. Classic situation of special interests using their power to force government into certain expenditures to maintain revenue flow for private companies. Does it even need to be said this waste is killing the country and is flatly self-serving?

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  15. Yup.. The SRBs need to be torn down to just the steel casings and have all of the sea-dunked electronics and servos replaced, then new solid-fuel has to be cast into the steel casings. The process costs almost as much as just buying a brand-new SRB.

    Calling these SRBs “reusable” is disingenuous.

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  16. SLS isn’t that bad… side boosters are already reusable… they fall back to earth using parashoots and are recovered… they just need to replace core stage with a fly back stage like falcon…

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  17. When Elon Musk points out that advances in technology aren’t automatic this is a great example. This was proven well understood hardware 30 years ago.

    The urgency of their future timeline is impressive. Maybe in a year or two we’ll test the engines. Maybe not. Who knows? Who cares?

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  18. The only way this could possibly be justified is if it turns out to actually be a real Orion spaceship, and not just one that copied the name to try to make nuclear pulse drive hard to google.

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  19. Gotta make sure every Congressional district gets at least one $10M contract, even if what they deliver is not usable and they have to order again. And you have to have 10 paper pushers for every 3 workers.
    And companies get a strangle hold by getting something 80% done then asking for more and more while making virtually no progress as no one wants to cut something that we already spent billions on. So they milk it and milk it for a decade or more. Any contractor that does that should be blackballed and gone. Instead we reward it. Congress is happy, the companies are happy…wait isn’t there anyone else who matters? I guess not. Token achievements, more pictures of past achievements and some CGI for the public.

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