NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) moon rocket is deemed “unaffordable” for sustained exploration of the Moon, according to a new audit conducted by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) and released on September 7.
1. Moon rocket
SLS is a heavy-lift rocket designed to carry astronauts and cargo to the Moon as part of the Artemis planned missions. Unlike the Apollo program, which consisted of a limited number of missions, Artemis aims to establish a permanent presence on the Moon, including the construction of a lunar Gateway, a space station orbiting the Moon, and lunar habitats. But the costs involved in this mega-rocket are raising red flags.
“Senior NASA officials told GAO that at current cost levels, the SLS program is unaffordable,” according to the GAO report, which was delivered to the congressional committees that have jurisdiction over NASA’s budget. The SLS program’s cost “exceeds what NASA officials believe will be available for its Artemis missions,” the report’s authors added.
2. Multi-billionaire investment
The development of the SLS has been a multi-billion-dollar endeavor, considered one of the most expensive space exploration projects. Since 2011, NASA has spent $11.8 billion from the moment it began developing SLS, according to Space.com. After several delays, NASA’s moon rocket successfully launched its uncrewed Artemis 1 mission to the Moon, on 16 November 2022.
The mission, though behind schedule, was regarded as a remarkable success, setting NASA up to launch its first crewed test mission around the Moon in late 2024. After the mission probing Earth’s only natural satellite, Artemis III is expected to follow — the first attempt to return American astronauts to the moon since the Apollo program.
On top of the $11.8 billion spent on the SLS, an additional $11.2 billion was allocated in the White House’s 2024 federal budget request to account for future work on SLS from 2024 through 2028. The space agency plans to use these funds to develop core stages, rocket engines and other components for its moon rocket, ultimately to increase the vehicle’s efficiency as well as the amount of cargo that can be delivered to the Moon for Artemis.
In late 2021, a report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General showed that NASA will likely spend a total of $93 billion on the Artemis program between 2012 and 2025, and that each SLS launch will cost about $4.1 billion. A large part of the budget was attributed to hiring contractors in every US state and more than 20 similar partners across Europe.