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NASA’s SLS Mega-Rocket: A Moonshot Too Expensive to Take Off

In a surprising turn of events, NASA has finally admitted that its Space Launch System (SLS), designed to propel humans to the Moon, is unaffordable. The revelation came in a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which criticized NASA for lacking transparency on the true costs of the SLS program. Despite a successful debut launch with the Artemis I mission in late 2022, senior NASA officials have stated that the program’s current cost levels are unsustainable. The GAO report also raised concerns about NASA’s decision not to measure production costs for core stages and rocket engines needed for future launches. Instead, NASA plans to monitor these costs through a five-year production and operations cost estimate, which the GAO considers a poor tool for establishing a cost baseline.

Further complicating matters, NASA has not regularly updated its five-year production cost estimates. The report also highlighted concerns about the development costs of future hardware, including the Exploration Upper Stage. Delays in the Artemis missions are likely, with the Artemis II mission, a crewed flight around the Moon, expected no earlier than 2025, and the Artemis III crewed landing likely to slip to at least 2026. Despite these delays, some NASA officials told the GAO that these would have no cost impacts, a claim that seems improbable. NASA is now working on a four-step plan to reduce the costs of the SLS program, which includes stabilizing the flight schedule, achieving learning curve efficiencies, encouraging innovation, and adjusting acquisition strategies to reduce cost risk. However, these are considered aspirational aims for now, and it remains unclear whether NASA will be able to control costs effectively.

The SLS program’s high costs have been a point of contention for years, but this is the first time NASA has openly acknowledged the issue. With billions already spent, the future of the Artemis program now hangs in the balance, raising questions about America’s ambitions in space exploration.