If you wanted to get a large payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) today, what are your HLV options?
United Launch Alliance (ULA) provides the Delta IV Heavy, which is capable of placing nearly 23 metric tons (mT) in LEO. The Titan IV-B can lift 21 mT, Russia's Proton M flings 21 metric tons to LEO, and the Ariane 5 ES can deliver 20 mT. Japan offers the H-IIB, which can place 19 metric tons in LEO, and China's Long March 3B has a maximum LEO payload of 13 mT.
On the near horizon, here are the likely new heavy launch options:
- China's Long March 5 (CZ-5) family of launchers will sport a maximum capacity to LEO of 25 mT, with an initial test launch date sometime in 2014.
- SpaceX's Falcon Heavy will carry 53 mT to LEO, and their manifest says they plan their first launch at Vandenberg in 2012.
- NASA's SLS will initially provide 70 metric tons of payload to LEO, with the first development launches "targeted for late 2017."
While everyone is getting excited about NASA's new Space Launch System and its promised ability to carry humans to the asteroid belt and Mars, let's keep some perspective. NASA estimates that getting the new launcher and the Orion spacecraft ready for an initial development 2017 launch is going to cost U.S. taxpayers between $17 billion and $22 billion. And if they are already aiming for a late 2017 date, anyone in the aerospace industry knows that means 2018 for sure.
SpaceX, on the other hand, plans to have their Falcon Heavy ready for its first test flight in late 2012, a full five years earlier. Oh, and SpaceX is already advertising launch prices in the $80-125 million range. That's "million," not "billion."
So why are we gutting the rest of NASA's dwindling budget to fund the SLS?