Space: The Private Frontier
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  • And yet 70% of NASA’s FY13 space exploration budget is being spent on the Space Launch System (SLS), aka, derisively, the “Senate Launch System”. This is a heavy-lift launch system with no definite mission attached to it other than to act as a giant jobs program for various NASA labs and contractors.

    Even when you omit R&D amortization from SLS, the most optimistic estimate is about $8500 per payload pound to low earth orbit, with some estimates running as high as $19,000 per pound.By comparison, SpaceX is advertising Falcon Heavy prices at about $1000 per payload pound to LEO. The one advantage that SLS has is in payload capacity: 77 tonnes to LEO for SLS block 1 vs. 53 tonnes for Falcon Heavy. (There’s a 130 tonne version of SLS planned, but its schedule is further out.) But it’s still cheaper to do on-orbit assembly and fueling with a propellant depot with two or even three Falcon Heavy launches than it is to do one SLS launch.

    SLS consumes about $2.7 billion per year in the NASA budget. That budget could be used for real deep-space exploration R&D if the SLS’s giant welfare program were cancelled.

  • If we’d only cancel the Space Launch System, which costs, optimistically, about 8 times as much per pound to LEO as Falcon Heavy, NASA could take the $2.7 billion a year it spends on this glorified corporate welfare program–70% of NASA’s space exploration budget–and do some real deep-space exploration R&D.

  • ToniTexas

    Re NASA’s budget, three explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. First, many individual federal programs are likely a smaller proportion of a gargantuan budget. Second, any craft (like a satellite) that doesn’t have to keep humans inside alive is cheaper. Third, the ever-falling price of microelectronics means NASA can do more with less money.

    That said, competition in a free market will likely produce a better product or service for a lower price. Remember $3,000 toilet seats approved by the Pentagon?

  • ToniTexas

    PS Elon Musk is behind the curve. A couple of decades ago, Orbital Sciences pioneered private-market space rockets, and later got into making satellites.

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