Rockets as a Service

NASA is about to launch it’s most powerful rocket ever, the Space Launch System (SLS) on it’s maiden voyage around the moon any day now. Cobbled together from old Space Shuttle parts it’s taken 11 years and $4 billion of tax payer’s money to build. The SLS, like the previous giant Saturn 5 rocket before it, is not reusable.

Meanwhile privately funded company SpaceX has been working away on it’s giant Starship rocket which is totally reusable.

Both these rockets are designed to do the same job, get astronauts to the moon. But what’s interesting is the processes that brought them to life.

It was thought by using old Space Shuttle parts the SLS would be cheaper to develop, in fact, it’s the opposite which has shown to be true. NASA’s public funding model has had a very undesirable effect. The requirement from congress to provide jobs through contracts to American companies means that delivery is incentivised to take longer and therefore at a higher cost.

Fortunately, as a result of the Obama government, NASA did provide funding for private space companies to take up the challenge and this has resulted in SpaceX being able to develop Starship which competes directly with the SLS but for a fraction of the cost.

The SLS seems to have been a very costly insurance project, just in case the privately funded space companies did not rise to the challenge. But I can’t help thinking what else could NASA have built with $4 billion? Maybe something akin to amazing scientific research projects like the James Web Telescope.

At the end of the day these rockets are really just infrastructure, a way to get payloads up into low earth orbit and eventually the moon, they require iteration, experimentation, an agile mindset and above all, an ability to embrace failure. This is where competition and innovation shine and what SpaceX has in spades. This is in stark contrast to NASA’s compliance driven, risk averse, bureacratic culture. No longer driven by the mission, a far cry from the NASA of 1969 and the first moon landings.

NASA’s SLS versus SpaceX’s Starship

Cost per launch$4.1 billion$2 million
Cost to the tax payer$11 billion$1 billion
Launches per year4100
Payload95 tonnes150 tonnes