The SLS rocket for Space Launch System made its first flight on November 16th. On the occasion of the Artemis 1 mission, the rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, a historic site of American takeoffs. But this launcher, whose cost is estimated at 4 billion dollars, cannot be reused.
NASA industrialists must therefore rebuild an entire copy of the rocket for the Artemis 2 mission, whose departure is scheduled for spring 2024. With four to five missions in the years to come, the bill could reach 20 to 25 billion dollars. dollars for NASA, just in construction costs.
SpaceX: savior of NASA
At the same time, private solutions exist. SpaceX, with the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) is a prime candidate. This rocket composed of a Super Heavy first stage and a Starship at its top is even more powerful than the SLS.
The only downside is that it has never flown before and its design is already causing big problems for Elon Musk’s company. Officially, the SLS is NASA’s only launch vehicle to land on the Moon. But behind the scenes, discussions exist to replace this rocket already seen as obsolete.
Not reusable, the rocket has a huge cost. At the same time, it allows the entire heavy launcher industry to survive. For decades these companies have made a fortune with the space shuttle, the shutdown of the latter following the Columbia accident almost killed them.
Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and the end of the program Constellation forced the Senate to urgently amend NASA’s budget in 2011 to include the development of a super-heavy launcher, the SLS. This political rocket, once dubbed the “Senate Launch System” saved thousands of jobs. It has since allowed NASA to resume its journey to the Moon.
Already the end?
Faced with affordable private competition, the SLS launcher already seems from another era. The device can bring 81 tons of payload into orbit, almost a quarter of the ISS, but this power is not required to aim for the Moon. The only way for NASA to justify such a launcher would be to find more distant targets, such as Mars, or the transport of substantial payloads such as a lunar base.
These projects are well in the small papers of the American space agency. But here again SpaceX could do well. The BFR would be able to send 150 tonnes of payload into orbit. More power than the SLS. For the time being, NASA continues to publicly support its launcher and the construction of SLS-2 is already underway. It should be completed in the course of 2023.