NASA builds a giant Mars rocket, at a price

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from Bloomberg Businessweek,

When NASA puts a human on Mars, a mission scheduled to take place from 2035 to 2040, the plan is to travel there with the aid of the largest rocket in space history. Taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Space Launch System (SLS) is an integral part of NASA’s Orion program, which plans to orbit the moon, rendezvous with asteroids, and eventually take humans to Mars.

In many respects, the SLS has become to Orion what NASA’s massive Saturn V rocket was to the Apollo lunar missions—an expensive symbol of NASA’s engineering leadership. Yet critics are quick to note that, unlike during the Apollo era, NASA’s budget is now severely constrained; several promising private ventures may be able to lift heavy things into orbit at a fraction of what Uncle Sam is spending. Moreover, they contend, this strain on the budget crimps vital research on the long list of additional technical obstacles impeding human travel to Mars.

“If you look at the timeline for going to Mars, they keep talking about 25 years out—and it’s 25 years out because of their budgets and because they keep spending it on their huge rocket at ridiculously higher prices than the private market,” says Henry Vanderbilt, executive director of the Space Access Society, a research group that advocates for lower-cost approaches to space travel. “You can make the argument that with that rocket as a drag on NASA’s budget, we’re never going to be at Mars.”

The rocket’s two boosters are an enlarged version of those that flew on the Space Shuttle missions; they were cribbed from that program partly in response to tight budgets.

“Do we really think that technology from the 1970s is what we should be going to Mars with? It boggles my mind,” says Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator and a long-time critic of the SLS. “Let the transport part be handled by the private sector.”

The program that preceded the SLS-Orion plan, called Constellation, started under President George W. Bush and was designed to return Americans to the moon by 2020, the initial step in the country’s path to Mars. President Barack Obama canceled the program in 2010 after a commission found that NASA’s budgets wouldn’t support Constellation’s ambitions. But NASA spent heavily on a new Ares rocket during the six years of Constellation work, and backers of a NASA-built rocket found support among some U.S. senators, which led critics to dub the SLS the “Senate Launch System.” In January, Congress approved $1.7 billion for the SLS—$320 million more than Obama had requested—as part of an $18 billion NASA budget for 2015.

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