Skip to navigationSkip to content

What does the future hold for SLS, NASA's $17 billion moon rocket?

SpaceX's Starship threatens the future of Boeing's Space Launch System

the first core stage for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket.
This story was published on our Space Business newsletter, A glimpse at the economic possibilities of space.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published

Dear readers,

Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Artemis updates, a crisis from space, and small launch gets real.

🚀 🚀 🚀

What does the future hold for the $17 billion Moon rocket that NASA is finally bringing to the launch pad?

Today, the US space agency is issuing an update on Artemis, its effort to put the next generation of US astronauts on the Moon. Next month, engineers will prep the Boeing-built Space Launch System, a 98-meter-tall launch vehicle more powerful than the Saturn V rocket of the Apollo years, for a final dress rehearsal. Then, they’ll set the date for an uncrewed mission to the Moon later this year, known as Artemis 1.

That mission, originally expected in 2020 and now billions of dollars over budget (pdf), is aimed to prove out the SLS and its space capsule, Orion, before the first crewed mission orbits the Moon sometime in 2023.  A third mission with a goal of putting a landing party in orbit around the Moon could happen in 2025.

Still, after more than a decade of work—the rocket emerged as part of the Bush administration’s Constellation program—it’s not clear what SLS will be used for after these three flights. Its per-launch cost is thought to be on the order of a billion dollars. And it is facing increasing competition from you-know-who: Elon Musk and SpaceX.

If all goes well with the first two Artemis missions, the current plan for the third features astronauts meeting up with a SpaceX Starship in orbit around the Moon, which NASA has chosen as their transport to the lunar surface. Once aboard the privately built vehicle, they will use it to descend to the Moon and return with scientific samples.

The implication should be clear: A Starship capable of flying to the Moon to act as a lunar lander is capable of taking astronauts there in the first place. And if the cost of the vehicle is less than SLS—which seems likely, given that it is designed to be reusable—it will be hard to make the case that any future deep space missions should rely on the Boeing rocket.

SpaceX’s competitors have not missed this trend. Musk is already taking work from SLS. Last year, NASA chose to launch a space probe that will visit the distant moons of Jupiter with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket because the SLS wouldn’t be ready in time. The move saved the space agency $500 million. Following a recent update on Starship, one anonymous lobbyist for SpaceX’s rivals told Politico that his clients are “shitting the bed” at the prospect of Musk’s next-generation rocket reaching orbit this year.

To be sure, rocket development is rarely linear and there is still much for SpaceX to do to make sure Starship gets to orbit. But Boeing and Lockheed have watched as SpaceX first used the Falcon 9 to take over the market for vehicles to launch satellites and space probes, and then used the Dragon capsule to monopolize human spaceflight to orbit in the US. Who’s betting SpaceX can’t do the same for deep space?

🌘 🌘 🌘

Imagery interlude

All eyes are on the crisis in Ukraine this week—especially the eyes in the sky. This is one of the first international incidents to take place with privately owned space radar in orbit. You’ve probably seen imagery from Capella Space and other providers in your news diet, corroborating US claims about Russia’s aggressive troop deployments:

Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, noted that eastern Europe is predictably cloudy this time of year, making satellites with optical imaging sensors less useful—and turning radar satellites into “the breakout ‘new space’ capability of this crisis.”

The growing importance of such satellites has US officials warning private firms to safeguard their spacecraft from potential attacks.

🔊🔊🔊

No such thing as too much fanfare. Indian weddings are as varied as the religions, castes, communities, and tribes that host them. But the big, spectacular Indian wedding—a combination of Hindu tradition and Bollywood influence—has withstood the test of time, social reform, and a pandemic. Learn more about the staying power of these pricy parties with this week’s episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast.

Listen on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher

🛰🛰🛰

Space debris

I’m not here to make friends. The business of building small rocket launchers is growing tenser as more companies approach first launches and operational flights. Veteran space journalist Jeff Foust entertainingly captured the reality-show dynamics of the sector at a recent meet-up.

Getting ahead of “Moon junk.” The problem of trash at the Moon isn’t a big one—yet. With some space hardware, likely part of a Chinese rocket, about to smack into our nearest neighbor in the solar system, and some 50 missions planning to visit in the next decade, some scientists say it’s time to start figuring out solutions before things get out of hand.

Annals of Starlink. 🔼 Elon Musk donated fifty Starlink terminals to the government of Tonga, which has been isolated after a devastating undersea volcano eruption and tsunami earlier this year. 🔽 One US Starlink user shared that after a year, his Starlink service has been deteriorating and doesn’t support video calls well.

Galactic losses. Virgin Galactic’s recent earnings report revealed $1 billion in losses in the last two years, and more delays in its plans to regularly fly tourists to the edge of space. It’s difficult to figure out how the company will reach its goals without raising more capital, which may prove challenging in the current market environment.

Do US missile defenses work? Selling missiles designed to intercept nuclear attacks is a space business, too, but it’s not clear how good the products are: A recent independent report argued that major American missile defense systems are unlikely to work and aren’t tested in realistic conditions, an allegation we’ve looked at before.

Your pal,

Tim

This was issue 124 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your small launcher league tables, viable space tourism business plans, tips, and informed opinions to tim@qz.com.

📬 Discover the innovators behind growing investment in space.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.