NASA chooses Falcon Heavy over SLS to launch Europa Clipper, saving about $ 2 billion
The bureaucracy of state control is slowly waning in space exploration, at least in the US. A series of delays, cost overruns, and imposed requirements have finally taken their toll on the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s next-generation missile system. Now the space agency has finally given the commercial launcher industry a point. It has chosen to use Space X’s Falcon Heavy to launch one of its upcoming flagship missions – Europa Clipper.
This decision was made despite massive pressure from SLS contractors to try to keep the mission aboard. In fact, Congress initially did not allow NASA to open Europa Clipper’s contract to other bidders. Pressure came from voters in the various congressional districts in which the SLS is incorporated. But the disadvantages of using the often delayed system have become too great to ignore.
Illustration by another artist from Europa Clipper
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech
A disadvantage was the cost – not just for the rocket itself. Overall, the Falcon Heavy, which is reusable in contrast to the SLS, is said to save 2 billion US dollars when it launches the Clipper on its way to Jupiter. About half of these savings are made by avoiding an expensive redesign.
This new design had to do with the vibration load on the SLS system when it started. Known in technical jargon as “Torsion Load”, the current iteration of the clipper could not withstand these forces, according to a NASA study. Just redesigning the entire clipper to make it compatible with the SLS launch forces would have cost around $ 1 billion. Adding an expensive disposable rocket to the mix adds another $ 1 billion to launch costs.
The first commercial launch (and second successful launch) of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.
Image Credit: SpaceX
Another nail in the coffin was the schedule – the SLS has been repeatedly delayed and is now more than 2 years behind schedule, although it has not yet completed its first launch, expected in November. Falcon Heavy, on the other hand, began development after the SLS and has already proven itself to be airworthy with 3 successful flights and a number of ongoing start-up contracts. SLS was designed primarily to aid Artemis, NASA’s efforts to return to the moon. It was unclear whether, given the SLS program’s commitment to Artemis and its repeated delays, the system would even be ready to support Clipper’s launch in 2024, and its usefulness for other science missions has also been questioned.
Even with $ 2 billion in savings and the risk of missing the entire original launch window, Congress still stuck to SLS. At least until earlier this year when it passed a budget change that would allow NASA to find other contractors to start the mission. When the agency announced that SpaceX had received the new contract, the seasoned launch watchers were not surprised. But it added another feather to the commercial startup industry – saving the American taxpayer nearly $ 2 billion.
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Artistic conception by Europa Clipper.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech