The bureaucracy of government control is slowly fading away in space exploration, at least in the US. A series of delays, cost overruns, and imposed requirements have finally started taking its toll on the Space Launch System (SLS), the next generation NASA rocket system. Now, the space agency has finally conceded a point to the commercial launch industry. It has elected to use Space X’s Falcon Heavy to launch one of its upcoming flagship missions – Europa Clipper.
That decision was made despite a massive push from SLS contractors to try to keep the mission on board. In fact, Congress originally had not allowed NASA to open Europa Clipper’s contract up to other bidders. Pressure came from the constituents of the variety of Congressional districts that the SLS is built in. But the downsides of using the oft-delayed system became too big to ignore.
Another artist’s illustration of Europa Clipper
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech
One downside was the cost – and not only of the rocket itself. Overall the Falcon Heavy, which is reusable, unlike the SLS, is expected to save $2 billion when it launches the Clipper on its path to Jupiter. About half of that savings will come from avoiding a costly redesign.
That redesign had to do with the vibrational load of the SLS system on launch. Known in the jargon as “torsional load”, the current iteration of the Clipper could not withstand those forces, according to a NASA inquest. To redesign the whole Clipper to make it compatible with the SLS’s launch forces would have cost around $1 billion alone. Adding a single use, expensive rocket to the mix adds another $1 billion to the launch costs.
The first commercial launch (and second successful launch) of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.
Another nail in the coffin was timeline – the SLS has been repeatedly delayed and is now more than 2 years behind schedule, though it still hasn’t completed its first launch yet, which is expected in November. Falcon Heavy on the other hand, started development after the SLS and has already proved flight worthy, having 3 successful flights to date and a number of ongoing launch contracts. SLS is primarily designed to support Artemis, NASA’s effort to return to the moon. It was unclear, given the commitment the SLS program had made to Artemis and its repeated delays, whether or not the system would even be ready to support the Clipper’s Launch in 2024, and its usefulness for other science missions has been called into question as well.
Even with $2 billion in savings on the table, as well as the risk of missing the entire original launch window, Congress still stuck by SLS. Until earlier this year at least, when it passed a budget amendment that would allow NASA to pursue other contractors for the launch of the mission. When the agency announced that SpaceX had landed the new contract, it didn’t surprise veteran launch watchers. But it did add another feather in the cap of the commercial launch industry – and saved the American taxpayer almost $2 billion.
Artist’s conception of Europa Clipper.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech