Guess what's on the receiving end of more NASA dollars for SLS?

Hint: It rhymes with 'throwing' as lawmakers baulk at lobbing an unknown amount of cash into the 2024 lunar bonfire

SLS Core Stage Pathfinder in VAB
SLS Core Stage pathfinder lifted in VAB (pic: NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

NASA brought a smile to faces of Boeing shareholders this week with the announcement that it would be ordering 10 Space Launch System (SLS) core stages from the US aviation giant for Artemis rocket launches to the Moon. Although paying for the things could be tricky.

The news came as NASA was trumpeting the arrival of the first version the monster rocket's core stage into its Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). In what doubtless brought a frisson of recollection to many, the 212 foot-long behemoth was lifted into a vertical position in the giant structure's transfer aisle, just like the external tank of the shuttle, back in the day. This time, however, there will be no orbiter to attach.

Instead, engineers will be using the test article to practice offloading, moving and stacking manoeuvres ahead of the arrival of the real thing next year. Maybe.

Boeing is under contract to build the SLS core stages for the first two Artemis missions, as well as the pathfinder currently swinging around in the VAB. The rocket purchase authorisation means Boeing can get cracking on the third core stage which will be used for the Artemis III mission and that all important 2024 crewed landing on the Moon.

It is expected that the next batch of rocket core stages will not suffer the same hideous cost overruns and horrendously drawn-out birthing process of the first build, which might finally fly in 2021 after years of delay.

While more ex-Shuttle RS-25 engines will be needed for dumping into the ocean after the non-reusable SLS is expended, NASA also wants Boeing to finally get on with building the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to be used from Artemis IV. The EUS is essential to send heftier payloads of the order of 45 tons into lunar orbit.

The comparatively weedy Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage will be used on the first three Artemis missions in NASA's headlong rush to get those boots on the surface to meet US President Donald Trump's 2024 deadline.

And that arbitrary 2024 date is causing some furrowed brows. At a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee's Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee into NASA's proposal to bring the Moon landing forward from 2028, US lawmakers hauled the agency over the coals as the price tag for all the lunar japery remained unclear.

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Chair of the committee, José Serrano, had NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine squirming uncomfortably as he asked again for an estimate of how much the US taxpayer was going to have to cough up in order to accelerate the program.

As in previous hearings Bridenstine could not give an answer, despite lawmakers pressing the Administrator for figures and flinging examples of past cost and schedule overruns at him. Serrano summed things up (at the 1:16 point) by reminding NASA that "unless we know what this is going to cost at the end, it would be irresponsible of us to take the first step."

Ouch.

Serrano ended by denying that he had effectively stuck a knife into the Artemis programme with his questions, saying "I don't have that kind of power."

However, until NASA comes up with some numbers it can stick to for its accelerated lunar dreams, and sharpish, those questions aren't going to go away. ®

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