Recently SpaceX made history again by launching a reused Dragon spacecraft with a version of the Falcon 9 that had a reused first stage rocket, thus paving the way for space launches at a significantly reduced cost. At the same time, SpaceX is finally getting ready for the first test of the Falcon Heavy, which will also have a reusable first stage rocket and two reusable strap-on rockets. Whimsically, CEO Elon Musk intends to use the test launch to place his Tesla Roadster electric car in orbit around Mars.

Then, Ars Technica is reporting that NASA is investigating ways to make its heavy-lift Space Launch System more affordable to build and to operate.

The announcement is the latest chapter in the story of a rocket that was created in response to one of the more obscure, yet damaging, public policy blunders of the Obama administration, the cancellation of the Constellation space exploration program.

The origin of the Space Launch System

The space launch system was born in the wake of President Obama’s decision to cancel President George W. Bush’s Constellation space exploration program, something that Congress strenuously objected to. Obama’s vague plans to study Heavy Lift launchers and other space technology did not include a commitment to build hardware or to use it to go anywhere. Later, Obama did commit to going to Mars but scheduled it so far into the future as to render it meaningless.

Congress mandated that the SLS be created from the legacy shuttle and Apollo era components for several reasons. One was that NASA had concluded that things like the space shuttle engines, having flown before, were more reliable. The other reason was that Congress was not going to leave the space agency any wiggle room to obstruct and delay the development of the SLS.

Unfortunately, the mandates meant that the heavy-lift rocket would be more expensive to build and to operate than it would have been had it been designed with new components. Some have estimated that the SLS would cost as much as $2 billion per launch. NASA would like to get that figure down to $500 million a launch, comparable to launching a space shuttle.

Commercial vs. SLS

The suggestion from some armchair aerospace engineers on the Internet that heavy lift was not needed to go back to the moon and on to Mars and that using existing rockets to refuel deep spacecraft was always a nonstarter. The flight rates that would have to happen to make that approach practical as well as service commercial and government satellite launches were unobtainable with current launch vehicles. The commercial space industry concluded that heavy lift was the way to go years ago, hence the development of the Falcon Heavy and the Big Falcon Rocket by SpaceX and the New Glenn and New Armstrong by Blue Origin.

However, the newer heavy lift rockets being developed by the commercial space sector would be cheaper to operate and build than the Space Launch System.

Hence, NASA is looking for ways to make its heavy-lift rocket more affordable, which may mean, among other things, using commercially obtained rocket engines. Whether the space agency will succeed or not remains to be seen.