NASA is asking the private space industry how to make its future Mars vehicles more affordable. The agency released a Request for Information Thursday afternoon, looking for ideas that could maximize the “long term efficiency and sustainability” of its Exploration Systems Development (ESD) programs. Those include NASA’s next big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion crew capsule — the vehicle that’s supposed to take astronauts into deep space and on to the Red Planet someday.
For now, Boeing is the primary contractor for the SLS, and Orion is being built by Lockheed Martin, with NASA overseeing production of both systems. But this year alone, NASA was given more the $3 billion to fund the projects, a sizable chunk of its $19.3 billion budget. And that’s a lot for a rocket and crew system that’s only supposed to fly once a year. In the RFI, NASA lays out all the missions it expects to do with the SLS and Orion between now and 2030, showing just one flight annually starting in 2023. For comparison, NASA says the average cost of launching the Space Shuttle was $450 million.
Now it seems the agency is looking for ways to reduce the amount of money it needs to sustain SLS and Orion, perhaps through workflow and management changes or different ways of acquiring materials. But as Ars Technica points out, NASA may not just be looking for ways to cut production costs. There is some phrasing in the RFI that suggests NASA is open to cheaper alternative hardware, too. The document calls for “competing exploration services in the mid-2020s timeframe and beyond,” which could indicate that the agency is willing to hear ideas for vehicles that could replace both the SLS and Orion. For instance, heavy-lift vehicles being developed by the private sector, such as SpaceX’s soon-to-be launched Falcon Heavy or Blue Origin’s future New Glenn rocket, could prove to be adequate substitutes for the SLS at much lower costs.
It makes sense that NASA is looking to cut spending right now, especially since it’s about to go through an administration change. The agency will get entirely new leadership, and it looks like it’ll be getting a new direction too — one that isn’t exactly keen on big spending and redundancies. Former congressman Bob Walker, who wrote President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed space policy during the campaign, told The Verge that the focus of NASA’s leadership under the new administration should be to “make sure our spending of space assets is being done efficiently and we’re not duplicating efforts unnecessarily.” Walker, however, will not be involved with the NASA transition team, he confirmed to The Verge.