Congress apparently feels the need for ‘confirmation’ of SLS rocket

Stuart Smalley is here to help you with daily affirmations from SLS.
Enlarge / Stuart Smalley is here to help you with daily affirmations from SLS.

Aurich Lawson | SNL

There’s a curious section in Congress’ new NASA reauthorization bill that concerns the agency’s massive Space Launch System rocket.

The section is titled “Reaffirmation of the Space Launch System” and it reaffirms Congress’ commitment to a twice-a-year flight rate for the rocket. The reauthorization legislation, which passed a House committee on Wednesday, also said NASA would have to identify other customers for the rocket.

“The Administrator shall evaluate the demand for the Space Launch System from agencies other than NASA and distribute such demand to the appropriate Federal agency or nongovernmental sector,” the legislation states.

Congress directs NASA to report on several topics within 180 days of the legislation’s passage. First, lawmakers want an update on NASA’s progress toward achieving a twice-per-year flight rate for the SLS rocket and the Artemis mission that will make that capability a reality.

Additionally, Congress is asking NASA to study the demand for the SLS rocket and estimate “cost and schedule savings for shorter transit times” for deep space missions due to the rocket’s “unique capabilities.” The space agency must also identify any “barriers or challenges” that might impede use of the rocket by entities other than NASA, and estimate the cost of overcoming those barriers.

Is anyone scared?

There’s a lot to unpack here, but the addition of this section—there’s no “reaffirmation” of the Orion spacecraft, for example—suggests that either the legacy space companies building the SLS rocket, local lawmakers, or both feel the need to protect the SLS rocket. As one Capitol Hill source familiar with the legislation told Ars, “It’s a sign that someone’s scared.”

Congress created the SLS rocket 14 years ago with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. The massive rocket prompted a flood of contracts to major aerospace companies, including Boeing and Northrop Grumman, which had operated the Space Shuttle. Congress then gave the contractors tens of billions of dollars over the years for development, often authorizing more money than NASA said it needed. Congressional support has been unwavering, at least in part because the SLS program boasts that it creates jobs in every state.

According to the original law, the SLS rocket was supposed to be “fully operational” by the end of 2016. The first launch of the SLS vehicle did not take place until the end of 2022, six years later. It was a great success. However, for various reasons, the rocket will not fly again until September 2025.

Leave a Comment