Why is the U.S. government building a space rocket? In particular, why is it building a space rocket that has cost nearly $20 billion and counting, is years behind schedule, relies on outdated technology, suffers by comparison to private-sector alternatives, and has little justification to begin with?
That’s the question President Joe Biden should bear in mind when pondering the future of the Space Launch System, the two-stage, heavy-lift rocket that aims to bring American astronauts back to the lunar surface and then — someday in the distant, hazy, not-too-specific future — to Mars.
Initiated in 2011, the SLS was the result of unfortunate compromises and unholy politics. By congressional mandate, it was built using technology and components that dated to the early space-shuttle era. That requirement all but ensured that the new rocket would be hugely expensive, heavily reliant on traditional aerospace contractors and — in all likelihood — antiquated before it ever reached a launchpad.
Perhaps predictably, the program has been plagued with problems from the start. A report last year from NASA’s inspector general warned of “rising costs and delays,” “shortcomings in quality control,” “challenges with program management,” “technical issues,” “development issues,” “infrastructure issues,” “performance issues” and more. A watchdog report in December found “uncertain plans, unproven cost assumptions, and limited oversight.”
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