One of the raps against the Orion deep spacecraft and the heavy lift Space Launch System is that the system would cost far too much to fly and would fly too infrequently. Figures of $2 billion a flight or more for a launch every two years have been bandied about by armchair aerospace engineers and amateur space policy analysts on the Internet. Eric Berger of Ars Technica, who is rapidly becoming the best space reporter of the current generation, sat down with Bill Hill, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, for some answers.

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The space agency’s goal is to keep production and operation costs of the Orion/Space Launch System to $2 billion a year or lower. By the time the first crewed Orion flies in the 2021-23 time frame, NASA would like to fly one SLS a year, some of them supporting cis-lunar operations, others flying space probes to the moons of the outer planets. By the end of the 2020s, the launch tempo of the SLS would increase to two a year.

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As Berger points out, with the current $3.7 billion a year being spent on NASA’s exploration systems, due to increase to $4 billion a year, a good chunk of change will be left over to build habitats, landers, and all the other systems needed to do the Journey to Mars. If one adds the $3 billion a year that will be freed up when the International Space Station ends, either by being decommissioned or handed to a commercial entity, plenty of money will exist for a robust space exploration program.

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And that is not even considering the contributions of international and business partners.

Of course, all depends on NASA being able to save money, by doing more with less where it comes to manufacturing and then launching the SLS. New manufacturing technology, including 3D printing, will certainly be of help. Berger notes that NASA and its contractors employed 1,200 people just to build the space shuttle external tank.

Boeing is using 400 people to assemble the SLS core stage, which includes engines and fuel tanks.

Needless to say, this revelation will not entirely quiet the Internet Rocketeer Club and its fixation on using only commercially available spacecraft. The NASA plan still envisions $1 billion a launch, an immense cost even considering inflation. Also, the question arises, is a launch rate of two SLS rockets a year enough to sustain a Mars program?

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Still, it looks like the idea that the Space Launch System is too expensive to fly is a myth, provided that NASA can do what it says it can do in keeping costs down.

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