Tomorrow NASA is set to launch the Space Launch System rocket, part of its Artemis program to return astronauts the moon. The SLS has been over a decade in the making. It is older, in fact, than the Artemis program itself, and was originally a Mars rocket. It is the largest rocket NASA has built since the Saturn V rocket, developed for the Apollo Program, last launched in 1973.

The three largest contractors working on the SLS are Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Northrop Grumman, names very familiar to ClearanceJobs readers and jobseekers. Boeing is responsible for building the core stage (and just most of the rocket, really). Aerojet Rocketdyne is building the engines. Northrop Grumman is building the solid boosters on the side.

In all, more than 1,100 contractors from across the United States came together to build this rocket, which will launch a test model of the Lockheed Martin-built Orion crew capsule. In total, the rocket and capsule have cost about $50 billion to develop, which is the same amount of money it cost to develop the first Space Shuttle.

That’s a pretty sweet deal if you can get it, so what is Artemis, where did the SLS come from, and how did these companies get the contract?

THE SENATE LAUNCH SYSTEM

The basic design of the rocket was driven not by the best minds of engineers at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, where the program is run, but rather, by the best minds in Congress. [record scratch]. You read that right.

In 2010, the Senate insisted upon a “heavy-lift” rocket that would use as many shuttle components “to the extent practicable” (but more importantly, preserve as many existing aerospace contracts) to build a rocket. This “Space Launch System,” as they called it, would need to:

  • Lift, without an upper stage, “payloads weighing between 70 tons and 100 tons into low-Earth orbit”
  • Have the ability to “to carry an integrated upper Earth departure stage bringing the total lift capability of the Space Launch System to 130 tons or more”
  • “incorporate capabilities for evolutionary growth to carry heavier payloads, with development work and testing of the core elements and the upper stage to “proceed in parallel”

OK, so they weren’t the best minds in Congress, but they were definitely members of Congress. The specificity of design was an industry wish list, and they got it. There was a lot in it for NASA, too, however. As I wrote for ClearanceJobs last week, the Defense Department is really great at getting big dollars and growing. NASA is not. A Congressional demand for a rocket meant the agency could make big plans on a semi-solid timeline. NASA calls that plan Artemis.

THE POLITICS OF SLS

If not for a few dedicated members of Congress, NASA would have withered on the vine during the Obama administration, which sought draconian cuts, particularly to the agency’s planetary exploration program.

It is not really a partisan thing, though. Nixon killed the Apollo program just as the program at its peak, ignoring the plan presented by the Saturn V’s chief architect Wernher von Braun to take what they had learned and push onward to Mars. Carter and Reagan saw the space science program as a big waste of money, and had they had it their way, today there would be no rovers on Mars or spacecraft exploring the farthest reaches of the solar system. Clinton accepted the International Space Station only begrudgingly, and mostly as an intelligence program (with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we essentially bought the entirety of Russia’s space flight capabilities at bargain prices).

Though we quite rightfully think well of the American space program, no one ever won the presidency by running on space, and politicians know it. If you could plant a flag on Mars and win an election, we would have skyscrapers there by now.

The two presidents Bush fought mightily to get human spaceflight back on track. George H. W. Bush wanted a man on Mars by the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing, though was stymied by a hostile Congress and a single term in office. George W. Bush initiated the biggest program since Apollo, called Constellation, though it, too, died unceremoniously after falling behind schedule and going over budget. The Obama administration basically killed every element of Constellation except… a giant Mars rocket on the drawing board called the Ares V.

Why did it survive? Because canceling such a massive program would have set up a confrontation with the Senate. The Obama administration was not willing to sacrifice health care reform for a rocket, no matter how much they didn’t want it.

WHY THOSE THREE CONTRACTORS

So far, SLS has cost taxpayers about $23 billion just to get to the first launch, which is basically a test flight, and doesn’t include the cost of Orion, the crew capsule the rocket has launched to circle the moon. The total cost is comparable with that of the first launch of the Space Shuttle. Unlike the shuttle, however, or the SpaceX Dragon capsule, or the SpaceX Starship spacecraft in development, the SLS is not reusable. Each launch is one-and-done. The rocket gets people to space and splashes into the ocean and sinks to the bottom. The capsule splashes down in the water, and is basically useless beyond that. (NASA is describing it as “partially reusable,” but they’re talking about pulling some parts from it. Orion is not reusable in the way that Dragon or Starship is reusable.)

How did Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Northrop Grumman walk away with such a lucrative project?

In Boeing’s case, it was just heritage. The three primary contractors who built the Saturn V were Boeing, North American Aviation, and Douglas. Through a series of mergers across decades, Boeing absorbed all three companies. That is a lot of institutional knowledge. In many ways, the same development pipeline that built the Saturn V for the Apollo Program to put men on the moon is doing the same for Artemis. Boeing builds the rockets in New Orleans. Aerojet Rocketdyne fires the engines in Hancock County, MS. NASA runs the rocket program from Huntsville, AL. And the whole thing is launched from Cape Canaveral, FL.

REUSING THE SHUTTLE ENGINES

The SLS rocket uses the same engine as the Space Shuttle fleet: the RS-25 engine. When NASA ended the shuttle program in 2011, they harvested sixteen engines from the remaining spacecraft. That was perfect for SLS planners. They faced a Congress who wanted a big rocket but who didn’t want to actually pay for it. With the engines already built and flightworthy, they could design the SLS to fly on four engines per launch. This guaranteed enough engines for four SLS rockets.

The irony is that the RS-25 is a reusable rocket engine. So while SpaceX and Blue Origin were taking the concept of disposable rockets and making them reusable, NASA has taken reusable rocket engines and making them disposable.

Lastly, Northrop Grumman was perfect for building those solid rocket boosters because they are basically the same ones used on the Space Shuttle. (The “solids” are the small sticks on the side of the SLS.) When it comes to rocket design, liquid engines have a ton of maneuverability, but not a whole lot of get-up-and-go. Solids are all get-up-and-go, but no maneuverability. By marrying the two, you get a powerful, nimble rocket.

GETTING THE PRICE DOWN

Other contractors critical to getting SLS off the Earth and men back to the moon include Teledyne Brown Engineering, which is responsible for the launch vehicle stage adapter. That is the part of the rocket between the core stage (the bulk of the rocket—if you pointed at random at a part of SLS, you’d probably hit the core stage) and the Orion capsule. It covers and connects the propulsion system that blasts Orion out to the moon.

That propulsion system, the interim cryogenic propulsion stage, is built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space and Boeing Defense, Space & Security. The ICPS is a modified version of the Delta IV rocket’s second stage. (This keeps in accordance with the idea of reusing hardware whenever possible).

The present iteration of the SLS rocket is only slightly more powerful than the Falcon Heavy and nowhere near as powerful as the Apollo-era Saturn V. Later versions of SLS to launch subsequent Artemis missions promise to be more powerful. This is an exciting time for rocketry in general, as the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy rocket, once flying, will dwarf SLS while also being reusable. (Starship is the cornerstone of Elon Musk’s plan to land humans on Mars.)

THE COST OF ARTEMIS

Each SLS Artemis launch will cost about $4 billion per launch. Starship will run about $250 million per launch. The less-powerful SpaceX Falcon Heavy runs about $100 million in its reusable configuration, and $150 million in its expendable configuration. Less expensive rockets mean more launches, which are the critical enabler for any serious manned space program with aims of permanent settlement on other worlds.

SLS is way, way more expensive than Starship, but is launching now. In Apollo terms, we are approximately at the same level as Apollo 4. The first manned test of that program, Apollo 7, launched less than a year later. The first such flight for Artemis will come in 2024 at the soonest. NASA’s goal is to place an astronaut on the moon by 2025, which is highly unlikely. At least the program is flying though. The sooner we check the box marked “moon,” the sooner we can get going on the real prize: Landing a man on Mars.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere in hardcover and paperback. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.
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