SPACE – From a few hundred million dollars per launch to 4 billion, a faulty launch pad, a mountain of delays: while the Space Launch System launcher is now on the firing line for final tests before a first test shot, it already has a mixed reputation behind it, as you can see in the video at the top of this article.
Initially thought of as a successor to the American space shuttle, then integrated into the Artemis program launched by Donald Trump for the exploration of Mars, this enormous NASA launcher has already been through a lot. In 2025, it will take astronauts to lunar orbit, where a lander will do the rest of the transport.
On its launch pad, the titanic machine looks great. With its 111 meters high and 8 meters in diameter, it is barely smaller than the Saturn V of the Apollo missions. But if the machine is superb, it is also expensive, much more than the NASA or the American government had envisaged initially.
Not reusable and very, very expensive
An audit conducted with the US space agency in 2020 points to these astronomical cost inflations, which raise a test launch of around $ 500 million to a four times higher addition. In question in this swelling, technical delays which are expensive, serious problems at the level of the launch pad, but also, more generally, the very political nature of the project.
Indeed, the US Senate has continued, year after year, to allocate ever greater appropriations to the project, even in 2019, when the Trump administration wanted to revise them downwards. The reason for this generosity is first of all employment: many states host NASA research or production centers that would close if the Artemis project was not running at full capacity. Hence the surprising initiatives, such as this amendment, reported by the magazine Ars-Technicarequiring a new battery of tests of the SLS engines… when there is no need for it.
Result, the lunar program should cost a little less than 100 billion dollars by 2025, when the director of NASA estimated it three times lower at the origin of the project. A colossal sum, to put in front of SpaceX and its reusable launchers.
Elon Musk’s firm, which has already revolutionized the launcher market, is shaking up the field of space exploration. The firm is developing its own Martian (and lunar) rocket, a reusable launcher, named Starship, which could well make the SLS green with envy. The famous boss of SpaceX estimates that in the long term, the cost of launching a Starship rocket could be two million dollars. Two thousand times less than its competitor.
Even if the experts consider this projection a little too enthusiastic, many are those who wonder if Starship, whose unmanned flight around the Moon is planned for 2023, will not immediately come to make the SLS obsolete. The manufacturer, in any case, already has a solid foot in the door: it is SpaceX which will build the lander responsible for transporting the astronauts from the SLS to the lunar soil.
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