Eric Berger over at Ars Technica is reporting that NASA has issued a request for information about how to make its heavy lift #Space Launch System cheaper to build and operate. The RFI also allows respondents to suggest alternative launch vehicles. Those vehicles might include the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the planned Blue Origin New Shepard and New Armstrong rockets.
The RFI makes sense for a number of reasons. The Space Launch System, while it is designed to launch as much as 130 metric tons into low Earth orbit, is expensive to operate because none of it is reusable, unlike the Falcon 9. NASA also envisions only launching one SLS per year, inadequate for any deep space exploration program.
Supplementing the SLS with other launch vehicles would increase the ability of NASA to conduct operations on the moon and on the Journey to Mars. If a way could be found to make the heavy lift launcher cheaper to operate, then so much the better. Berger throws out the fascinating idea of exchanging the solid rocket boosters on the SLS to a strap on version of the Falcon 9, a cheaper alternative to be sure if it could be made to work.
A mixed SLS and commercial rocket fleet also make sense in that it gives a variety of capabilities. Not every payload headed out beyond low Earth orbit is going to need the full power of the Space Launch System. A smaller Falcon 9 or New Shepard will suffice.
If commercial alternatives could be found that could replicate the capabilities of the SLS at a lower price, the big, expensive launch vehicles might be phased out gradually. That way, NASA and the incoming Trump administration would avoid the political headache that an abrupt cancellation would entail. Most people on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue remember the firestorm that was caused by President Obama’s ending the Constellation program and its rockets, the Ares 1 and the Ares 5. Despite the desire by some in the New Space fan community, such a repeat is not likely to happen. The compromise may be messy, but it is the price of doing business with the government,