The upcoming launch of the new NASA Moon rocket, the SLS, is the culmination of decades of work and effort. The Saturn 5 replacement is an awesome achievement, but at a cost of 2 billion per launch we will most likely not see many SLS launches.
First let me focus on the positive. SLS will allow America to return to the moon and for the first time since the 1970s. Once again we will have the capability we had with the Saturn 5 rocket. It has been a long time coming and there have been a number of other NASA attempts at restoring this capability that have failed. Many of those efforts had the concepts and technology rolled forward into the SLS program so they were not a total loss.
The crew capsule will be the largest and most capable ever sent to the Moon. It to is a great step forward (or maybe backward depending on your perspective). We once again can send people to the moon. There are other positives like re-use of the space shuttle main engines and solid fuel boosters but unfortunately there is a huge negative.
Now for the bad news. The SLS will cost 2 billion dollars per launch. It has cost in the neighborhood of 48 billion to develop and the 2 billion per launch does not include the development cost. When you consider that the 2022 NASA budget was about 24 billion, each launch of SLS will cost NASA almost 10% of it’s entire yearly budget. You can easily see we simply cannot afford to launch many SLS rockets per year. If NASA launches 2 per year that will consume almost 20% of the NASA budget. That is a huge amount of money when you consider all of the other missions that could be funded with that money.
Another issue is the non-reusability of the rocket. While the shuttle engines on it are flight proven, reusable and some have already flown on the shuttle, the SLS will be their last launch. The main engines are not to be used ever again as the first stage will be disposed of in the ocean. This non-reusability is a contributor to the cost of the SLS as well as poor optics. Others such as SpaceX intend to include re-usability in their heavy lift rocket. The current SpaceX Falcons already are reusable.
It is exciting to see the SLS, the new Saturn 5, launch and return mankind to the moon. It is bittersweet though when you look at the reality of the situation and know that there is just no way it can be sustained. In addition the cost of each launch will consume funds that could be used on other important missions that will simple never exist because of the SLS. If SpaceX succeeds with their new rocket, and they most likely will, the SLS will become a footnote on our journey to the Moon and outer planets, instead of the pathfinder it should be. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but it appears that is what will happen.