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Op-ed | The Space Launch System is America’s Space Program

The Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft at Launch Complex 39B on Aug. 17 in preparation for a launch as soon as Aug. 29. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA and America are on the precipice of a space renaissance with the maiden voyage of the Space Launch System Rocket, part of the NASA Artemis program. Many of us remember Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon and the launch of the International Space Station. The Space Launch System Rocket will launch with it the inspiration to return humans to the moon, and eventually to Mars. This generation of explorers is certain to make discoveries never before contemplated.

I have witnessed the evolution of America’s space journey throughout my life with Apollo, Skylab, the International Space Station, Space Transportation System (space shuttle), and then as a Vice President of Space Launch System (SLS). Human spaceflight is extremely complex, and while we’ve recently witnessed new ventures, we must never take for granted or downplay the intricacies and risks of space exploration. This new chapter of the U.S. space program has been a marvel, and I’ve never been more excited for our nation’s future in space than I am right now.

Experience is essential for understanding past mistakes and triumphs and applying those lessons to the future. Innovation is key to advancing technological developments and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Right now, we’re witnessing the U.S. space program going through a renaissance. It’s utilizing both experience on previous programs and innovation to forge a new path toward the next generation of space exploration.

In 2012, when the SLS program started in earnest, NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans required major upgrades to turn it into the modern world-class rocket factory it is today. Simultaneous with these upgrades, the New Orleans region endured five hurricanes. These setbacks resulted in today’s path, the advent of an uncrewed launch making its first attempt in August 2022, with a crewed launch window in the following years once the data from this critical first mission is captured and studied. Despite these challenges, SLS has taken a similar development path to the Space Shuttle and Apollo. 

Funding has also been a challenge to the program. Unlike privately-funded space development operations, NASA is bound by congressional appropriations. Traditionally, Congress has used a development bell curve for American space programs. For example, the contract for the International Space Station was considered large during its development but has become an efficiency model over its life span as it moved from a development program to an operations and maintenance model. Let’s not forget that without the ISS, there would be nowhere for commercial space capsules to carry astronauts and private riders to low earth orbit.

The NASA SLS program is unique in that it has been developed under flat congressional funding. Compared to the Apollo development programs, which had a higher overall budget, SLS development has been more cost-effective at approximately a quarter of the Saturn V rocket development. SLS has also averaged the same cost as the retired Space Shuttle operations annual appropriation while contending with the uncertainty of several short-term continuing resolutions to fund the government over the last decade.

The nation hasn’t seen a rocket and capability like the SLS and Orion capsule since the space race half a century ago. At a time when the world needs a symbol of hope and something greater than ourselves, I hope a successful SLS launch will remind us all to look to the stars and think of pursuits greater than ourselves. Who knows?  Maybe the budget hawks and critics of this program will finally look up and see something bigger too.

Virginia “Ginger” Barnes is a member of the board of directors at Challenger Center and the board of directors at AstraFemina. She spent three years as president and chief executive officer of United Space Alliance, LLC, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that managed U.S. Space Shuttle operations. Barnes has an extensive background leading space and defense programs at Boeing. Barnes graduated from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and earned a master’s degree in business from Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

Virginia “Ginger” Barnes

Virginia “Ginger” Barnes is a member of the board of directors at Challenger Center and the board of directors at AstraFemina. She spent three years as president and chief executive officer of United Space Alliance, LLC, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin...