Space Launch System Trying to Finish 40 Year Journey to a Space Shuttle Replacment

NASA reports that Space Launch system has a new development baseline cost estimate of $9.1 billion and the initial ground systems capability to support the mission is now $2.4 billion. Those costs are 33% over the last 2017 report to congress which triggers congressional hearings. They now are targeting a November 2021 launch date.

NASA and the contractors have gotten over $20 billion since 2011 for the SLS program. The SLS is an attempt to make a super-heavy launch vehicle out of mostly Space Shuttle components. The SLS costs do not include charges for the same contractors to use Space Shuttle components for the Constellation project. Through three decades of Space Shuttle operation, various follow-on and replacements for the Space Shuttle were partially developed but not finished.

In the late 1980s, there was the Shuttle II program. In the 1980s, NASA and the Air Force worked on the X-30 National Aerospace Plane. The Rockwell X-30 NASP was canceled in 1995 after about $5.5 billion was spent. The X-30 could have had more secret Department of Defense money.

The Lockheed Martin X-33 program had nearly $1 billion in funding and ran from 1996 to 1999. VentureStar was a bigger version of the X-33. There was the Orbital Space Plane Program. The existing Crew Exploration Vehicle inherited some of the components and works of the Orbital Space Plane Program. The Ares launchers were part of the Constellation program. The Space Shuttle program was ended in 2011. The Constellation program was from 2005 to 2009.

The Space Shuttle program ran from 1982 1975 (corrected per Nextbigfuture reader Daniel Ravennest) to 2011 and spent about $211 billion. The companies (United Space Alliance, Thiokol/Alliant Techsystems (SRBs), Lockheed Martin/Martin Marietta (ET) and Boeing/Rockwell) that got fat off of the Space Shuttle program have had political allies sending over about $40 billion on various efforts to develop replacements. The lack of success in developing a working space vehicle does not appear to have been something that really mattered to them.

The mostly reusable SpaceX Falcon Heavy has already successfully flow and can lift more payload than the Space Shuttle. The fully reusable SpaceX Super Heavy Starship has started construction and will have more payload capacity than the SLS. Nextbigfuture expects the SpaceX Super Heavy Starship to reach orbit before SLS.

SOURCES – Wikipedia, NASA, SpaceX
Written by Brian Wang,

51 thoughts on “Space Launch System Trying to Finish 40 Year Journey to a Space Shuttle Replacment”

  1. I wanted a modular approach. Engines on the External Tank like Energia, EELV/Pyrios strap one, and simpler Buran style orbiters that can have different shapes-one could be a Faget straight wing, another a lifting body, a wave rider and other hypersonic boilerplates.

    When the best option proves itself, scale that up.

  2. Problems I see with long term Mars habitation are:

    • Low Gravity. Can be "mitigated" with gravity trains, but not really.
    • Radiation exposure. You can bury yourself underground to avoid it, but that challenges the reason to go (imagine this for all the years of your life).
    • Dust: no mitigation except obsessive cleanliness, yet settlers will still be immersed in the stuff 24/24, breathing it, eating it.
    • Chemical contamination: perchlorates and such pollutants will unavoidably enter the settlers bodies, mostly due to dust.
    • Lack of interest due to the above. If life in Mars really, really sucks, they can find they have no willing settlers (those who pay to go and stay).

    Yeah, I'm aware there's people that will want to go no matter what (workers, scientists, rich adventurers, etc). But we're talking about creating a permanent human community where people would like to live and stay for good and have kids. That's different from a McMurdo-like encampment or an off-world amusement park for the rich.

  3. No difference between Mars and O'Neill. In both cases you must build your habitat. Of course Mars has lots of stuff at hand.

  4. I think you're low-balling SLS more than a bit. Only $1.5B for a single launch a year, vs Wikipedia's citation of over $2B. At $2B/yr for 4 launches, you're saying just $500B for 3 more SLS launches a year = $167M/rocket? Two 5-segment SRBs alone will likely cost ~$40M/launch, in volume.

    But sure, let's go with $500B/launch with 4 launches a year. And suppose SpaceX charges $50M per Starship launch in the timeframe SLS becomes operational (let alone up to 4 launches a year late this decade, soonest), so SLS is only 10x more expensive.

    How many payload modules are going to be designed to be launched without fairings? None this decade, I'd say. I think we can ignore that scenario for now.

    So – what's the big advantage of one 4x larger 20m long module over ten 8m modules launched separately (mated together or given different missions) with 2.5x more pressurized volume?

    If you're launching to the lunar surface or Mars, a lot of SLS' extra volume will be taken up by fueled stages to get the payload there, vs Starship just refueling – so even the single-volume advantage goes away, and probably reverses if Orion/Artemis is any indication.

  5. Nixon's decommissioning of the Saturn V and Saturn IB probably set the US space program back 40 years, IMO. He even told Cernan that he probably ended NASA's return to the Moon for the rest of the century.

    And even the Space Shuttle could have been substantially more successful if Nixon had invested the extra cash to enable the Shuttle to be optionally launched unmanned. That could have dramatically increased the launch rate while substantially reducing both manned and unmanned launch cost.

  6. SLS cost per launch will largely depend on launch frequency. An infrequent launch rate (one or two flights per year) would be very expensive ($1.5 billion or more). $1.5 billion will probably be the cost of– not launching the SLS at all– while still maintaining the operational staff and infrastructure to be able to eventually launch. 
    If the SLS is launched four or more times a year, cost could be reduced down to $500 million per launch. With two launch facilities currently being built for the SLS, at least four launches a year should be possible.
    Using the SLS to launch the Orion is probably the most wasteful way to utilize a super heavy lift vehicle, IMO. 
    The real money will probably be in the deployment of large orbital habitats and large lunar surface habitats– especially if such structures are also derived from the propellant tanks of heavy lift vehicles that are already in production (Dry Shops/Wet Shops). Government space agencies and super wealthy individuals (space tourist) paying millions of dollars a week to stay in extraterrestrial habitats should be an extremely lucrative business!
    The SLS should also be capable of deploying a fairly large artificial gravity habitat– with a single launch–consisting of three large pressurized modules and twin expandable cylindrical booms. Artificial gravity produced through rotation is probably the only way we're ever going to be able to send astronauts to Mars in a physically and psychologically healthy state.

  7. As far as I know, they should have the same difference in nozzle size depending, but otherwise??, seems the same.

  8. The "A or B" fight is, again, not which fuel is *better*, but whether the decision, Musk's in this case, was influenced by the selected plan, Mars or O'Neill. LCROSS found C, which is good for much besides fuel. I will let you convince those planning on using H that they are wrong in general due to the presence of C, it being a market decision. As to O'Neill, "settling planets and Moons for mining activities" is more of a necessary evil than *the* plan. But even humans supporting mining robots in construction/mining camps is so much larger an effort than Mars First/Direct/Only, even to barely start Space Solar, that the profit motive overwhelms waiting for Mars, if the situation is understood. Even if Space is only about equal to the Earth as the place to be, we need to get going now. If O'Neill is correct ("A"), and Space is clearly better, we are over 40 years Mars stupid("B") ignoring him. Have you read "The High Frontier"?

  9. The NASA Orion capsule has been in development for over 15 years. There has not been a single crewed flight. NASA has the backing of the entire NASA constituency AND the hill AND the money of the hill at levels higher than either CST-100 or Crew Dragon (and Boeing happens to receive much more).

    SpaceX offers a return on investment by selling commercially. Bezos will offer a return on investment by selling commercially. Boeing will offer a return on investment by selling commercially. Sierra Nevada Corporation, the same. NASA cannot offer a return on investment…by law. It is not in their mandate and they are not allowed to sell anything. Unless the law changes, then they will only be overpriced and non-competitive due to the complicated industrial conglomerate where there are more headquarters to pay than products to buy.

    So which tax dollar is better spent? The one that will make sure the tax dollar will no longer need to be spent (commercial programs after their inception)? Or the one that will have to be spent into eternity (governmental programs that are not run commercially).

    I find that choice to be an easy one.

  10. The point of C versus H has been moot for over a decade. The lunar probes demonstrated in 2009 (Lunar prospector) that Luna has plenty of C incorporated in it's H-ice and that is without exploring Luna at depth. When you refine this H and purify it chemically, something one will always have to do, you get C in large amounts as a storable byproduct. Which is not a disadvantage because you have an immediate use for it: CH4. If it is correct that the Moon had an atmosphere early in its life, an idea science is converging on, then a lot of C will be found in the depths of its upper crust. Besides that, the amount of C required is so small that you can even take it up from Earth if desired. Mars has plenty of easy to fetch C and so have all the moons and planets in the solar system. Literally all of them have it in minable or refinable quantities at industrially and commercially relevant levels.

    O'Neil cylinders are a good idea, i.e. to restore bone density at 1G, but so is settling planets and Moons for mining activities, together with asteroids, although the latter hardly ever have convenient orbits. Both are compatible ideas and I should want one or more around every Moon and planet of the solar system. So I don't really understand this A or B fight.

  11. Huh. So I guess Starship will just have to launch 750 modular units at $2M per launch versus $1.5B per SLS launch, to get close to making up for the 4x larger SLS payload.

  12. It's hard to finish anything when it's canceled every 3 years.
    SpaceX had ~8 years and ~$3B to develop and fly 6 crew dragon flights, they only had to go from cargo to crew dragon.

    Everyone always have their preferred pet precipitants for funneling public dollars.

  13. The Space X Starship payload cabin will only be capable of accommodating payloads that are 8 meters in diameter with a length up to 10 meters– at that width. 

    Within a 10 meter payload fairing, the SLS would be able to accommodate payloads that are nearly 9 meters in diameter and at least 20 meters long at that width.

    Cylindrical pressurized structures (habitats or space craft) deployed on top of the SLS, without a payload fairing, could range from 8.4 meters in diameter to 12 meters in diameter and be up to 40 meters high or long. 

    At minimum, the SLS should be capable of deploying payloads into orbit that are at least four times larger than payloads deployed by the Starship.

  14. People think the NASA spends money to build rockets. They don't. NASA builds rockets to spend money. It's a subtle but significant difference.

  15. Well, you are in disagreement with *everybody* on that, in that *everybody* planning on lunar resources (the Moon and beyond) is thinking H, even tho lunar C is also avail. Mars has C in the air, so is easy to collect, but the water would have be extracted, as on Moon. So Musk is right, for Mars. I'm going on the notion that lunar C will be later than lunar H. A question of availability rather than which fuel is "better".

  16. <i>"If his goal were the moon and beyond, not mars only, seems like it would be an H rocket."</i>

    I think this is where your reasoning is flawed. CH4 isn't good just because you can make it cheaply from Martian CO2, but because it is a vastly warmer fuel which is much much easier to keep from boiling off (granted, less than RP-1 but RP-1 is basically unavailable off Earth) than liquid H2 (111.65 K vs 20.271 K, respectively, both at 1 bar).

    This is why methane makes sense even if you're not going to Mars; it is a reasonably performant fuel which is reasonably easy to store and manage, as opposed to H2 which embrittles its containers and requires so much power to keep refrigerated that it is basically impossible to store it for any time scale longer than a week, maybe half.

  17. Nixon stopped the crazy Kennedy/Johnson war in Vietnam. But some people think it should still be going on, so potato potaaato.

  18. Sound a bit risky for deep solar system travel. As we place humans into space we need reliability almost at 100% Anything chemical would most definitely be dangerous of a failure. Furthermore we would need a engine(s) to be 2+1 or even 4+2 ratio for space travel to guarantee failure and return between voyages. Development of power plants lightweight and portable are most important of the solution. Engines like VASMIR can be multiples with a power bus for efficient and reliable travel. Getting the MW power plants is the technological issue and overcoming a ratio of weight vs power propulsion.

  19. The SLS is a pork barrel program for the senate and special favors. I doubt if it will ever go forward after all the billions of dollars thrown at it. Frankly we need a space engine. Chemical rockets simply are unmanageable to travel our solar system. NASA should be spending every dollar they get to advancements in propulsion system that use nuclear or ion technology. VASMIR is one such program, the power plant to drive VASMIR would need to be miniaturized to reduce weight and increase MW power would be advantageous. Travel through the solar system is very dangerous to organic life. Only with making a trip to net 30 days would make it tolerable. Technology is on our side. Once we used tubes and scan lines to see tv, now we have a micro led tv. All due to lab advancements and manufacturing technology.

  20. "But for the moment, let'em try." They need a fair chance to succeed. This requires good info. The counter intuitiveness of O'Neill/Galileo plus the recentness of the O'Neill part means we all could benefit by warning them they are on the wrong path. I spend quite a lot of time trying to explain O'Neill to those somewhat familiar with the Island 3 concept, and what it would entail, let alone those alarmed by the prospect of escaping the Earth. Plenty of info about Mars!

  21. Yes, I have my doubts about the long term viability of Mars as an inhabitable world.

    But for the moment, let'em try. Some things have to be experienced to learn them.

    And if all the experiments also give us the rockets and ways to build places with full 1G , free from harmful radiation and other hazards, then we'll be OK in the end, regardless if it ends up we can settle Mars or not.

  22. I've been betting the whole future on O'Neill since 1977. Glad to have richest man on Earth join me, but only learned of that a few years ago, somehow. And he could be a total flake, otherwise. The even more recent Musk certainly has good rockets, but think of the importance his understanding O'Neill would be! "And these rockets also are of interest for people dreaming of O'Neill settlements." And O'Neill Space Solar, O'Neill ISRU, which would make visiting Mars easy. Settle Mars? Why on Earth?

  23. Agree totally. I'm so in favor of Musk Starship I hope Bezos throws in the towel and buys the vastly superior(cheaper) service, if it works as planned. Bezos/O'Neill plan is to avoid launch, not rely on it only, but it is needed and welcome! The difference in the design, basically keeping the second stage booster as part of the *ship*, makes comparisons hard, but if his goal were Moon and beyond, not Mars only, seems like it would be an H rocket. That is all I am saying. Space is a *target rich* environment. Like Kepler, Musk's first idea is very important, even if wrong, as it motivates great rockets. Just break out of planetarianism, don't fall for gravity, and everything looks up.

  24. I take you are betting on Bezos and BO.

    Fine with me. But I tend to favor those that deliver, and so far SpaceX is leading the pack.

    Musk can talk about Mars all he wants. It may work, it may not. But me, I will be content as long as he also delivers the rockets that can take humans to all the other places we can believably reach with our technology.

    And these rockets also are of interest for people dreaming of O'Neill settlements.

  25. Hi Dan. Before you can build O'Neill type orbital space colonies, you first have to get mining and processing equipment to the right places. In what way is the SuperHeavy/Starship the wrong design for that job?

    Before they try to go to Mars, that rocket will be used to finish the Starlink internet constellation. That will be a cargo version, without long-duration life support and other extras needed for Mars. From my viewpoint, it would work just as well for delivering production equipment, provided you include an electric space tug to move it efficiently.

  26. > "The Space Shuttle program ran from 1982 to 2011 and spent about $211 billion. ?

    Sorry, but incorrect. The Space Shuttle program started in 1975, and first launch was on April 12, 1981. I was there at KSC, and remember it vividly.

  27. "The O’Neill idea" is contained in "The High Frontier". It is far more than the Island 3 example of what is possible. "Mars is just the only place we can establish a permanent human settlement with current technology and budgets." is the sort of statement that seems obvious, but is an indicator of Azimov's *planetary chauvinism*. Have you read "The High Frontier"? It starts with mostly uncrewed things, such as Space Solar, BTW. Not Mars, ever, for settlement. An important topic! For example, "Starship is a general purpose Spaceship." Most non-Mars Space efforts assume H rockets, refueled from lunar water, beyond initial launch. So assumptions are important already. And don't get me started on ISS's Mars focus.

  28. The 4 worst things done by Nixon in order of severity…
    1) Betrayal of Taiwan and the licking the CCP boot
    2) Elimination of the gold standard and the creation of the "fiat dollar"
    3) The abandonment of Apollo and the commitment to the Space Shuttle
    4) Watergate and all that surrounded it

    Yes, I thought what Nixon did to Taiwan was far worse than Watergate.

  29. The timeline on SLS, and cost, remind me of fusion reactor technology. At least fusion, with all of its vastly greater innovation and difficulties, has a chance of being considered a successful program 50 years from now.

  30. Starship is a general purpose Spaceship. It can do everything the STS Shuttle or any Shuttle could do and a lot more. Mars is just the only place we can establish a permanent human settlement with current technology and budgets. Having a settlement is what forces further advancement of capabilities.

    The O’Neill idea is better supported by SpaceX plans than anything else. It’s simply premature. It requires a vast infrastructure in space already so it’s just an inappropriate goal – at this stage.

  31. What's especially sad about the SLS: the Space Shuttle main engines cost several times more per unit thrust than the Saturn V engines. They were worth it for the Shuttle because they were reused, so they cost less per flight. So naturally the people behind SLS thought they were the perfect thing to throw away on every flight.

  32. The moment you said Bezos for "correct understanding" I threw up and then laughed, having worked a summer in an Amazon depot I have my own understanding on Bezos.

    If Musk is an amateur engineer cum entrepeneur, then Bezos is far less than that – just an entrepeneur trying to make a buck with zero understanding of the actual matters involved.

    If not his company Blue Origin (hehheheh BO) would already be where SpaceX is now, they certainly have the funds and then some to accelerate development.

    Instead they are far behind Falcon 9's progress, let alone Super Heavy.

    As for Galileo – people weren't even trying to get to space when he was alive, and neither was he.

    The average fairly educated child knows more about "space" than Galileo did with his limited instruments of the age.

    As for Super Heavy being a "Mars Rocket" – Musk never claimed otherwise, but that doesn't mean to say that it can't be used for other things, especially as its main use will be orbital launch long before its first Mars mission, Musk still has to pay for Mars first.

    The shareholders are happy for him to spin moonbeams about it without money – but to actually accomplish any significant Mars base targets will require a lot of capital which commercial and government launches combined with their own internet satellite system will get them.

  33. You are being generous to assume any significant portion going to the engineers vs the execs and shareholders of the corps making up SLS.

  34. "Space Shuttle Replacement" is actually a Mars rocket, as are all crewed things NASA, and Musk for that matter. Wrong plan leads to wrong designs. Bezos/O'Neill/Galileo for correct understanding of Space, and planets, and what to do.

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