July 20, 2024


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Congress seems to feel the need to “reaffirm” the SLS rocket.

Congress seems to feel the need to “reaffirm” the SLS rocket.

Zoom in / Stuart Smalley is here to help you with daily SLS affirmations.

Urich Lawson | SNL

There's a curious section in Congress's new NASA reauthorization bill that concerns the agency's large Space Launch System rocket.

The section, titled “Space Launch System Reaffirmation,” reaffirms Congress’s commitment to twice-a-year flights of the rocket. The reauthorization bill, which passed a House committee on Wednesday, also mandates that NASA identify other customers for the rocket.

“The Administration shall evaluate the demand for the Space Launch System by entities other than NASA, and shall determine such demand according to the relevant Federal agency or nongovernmental sector,” the legislation states.

Congress is asking NASA to report back within 180 days of the legislation’s passage on several topics. First, lawmakers want an update on NASA’s progress toward twice-a-year flights of the SLS rocket and the Artemis mission that will provide that capability.

In addition, Congress requires NASA to study the demand for the SLS rocket and estimate the “costs and time savings to reduce transit times” for deep-space missions due to the rocket’s “unique capabilities.” The space agency must also identify any “barriers or challenges” that might prevent the rocket from being used by entities other than NASA, and estimate the cost of overcoming those barriers.

Is anyone afraid?

There’s a lot to unpack here, but the inclusion of this section—without any “emphasis” on the Orion spacecraft, for example—suggests that either the traditional space companies building the SLS, or local lawmakers, or both, feel the need to protect the SLS. “It’s a sign that someone is scared,” one congressional source familiar with the legislation told Ars.

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Congress created the SLS rocket 14 years ago. NASA Authorization Act of 2010The massive rocket has kept a steady stream of contracts flowing to major aerospace companies, including Boeing and Northrop Grumman, which operated the space shuttle. Congress has spent tens of billions of dollars on contractors over the years for development, often authorizing more money than NASA said it needed. Congressional support has been steady, at least in part because the SLS program boasts that it creates jobs in every state.

Under the original law, SLS was supposed to achieve “full operational capability” by the end of 2016. The first SLS launch didn’t happen until late 2022, six years later. It was a complete success. However, for various reasons, the rocket won’t fly again until September 2025 at the earliest.