NASA has admitted in its latest Request for Information (RFI) that it's spending a bit too much money on the Space Launch System's and the Orion capsule's development. The agency is asking for public input on how to minimize the "production, operations and maintenance costs" of the rocket-and-spacecraft system -- an issue it needs to address soon since it will be under a new administration within a couple of months.
While President-Elect Trump once said he wants NASA to concentrate on exploring Mars and beyond, which is what the SLS is for in the first place, a budget cut would be devastating. It apparently costs the agency $3 billion a year to develop SLS and Orion. Seeing as NASA had a $19 billion budget for the fiscal year of 2016, it's safe to assume the project eats up a huge chunk of the agency's money.
The RFI confirms what Bill Hill, the engineer who oversees the project, told Ars Technica earlier this year. "We're just way too expensive today," he said during the interview. "It's going to take some different thinking and maybe a little bit more risk taking than what we're wanting to do today."
As Ars notes, it sounds like NASA is also opening its doors to competing technologies designed to do what the powerful rocket and the capsule are meant to accomplish. In one part of the RFI, the agency wrote that it's also on the lookout for "Competing exploration services in the mid-2020s timeframe and beyond if the market demonstrates such services are available, reliable, and consistent with NASA architectural needs."
It could mean that the agency is willing to use rockets and spacecraft developed by private space corporations instead of the SLS and Orion if they will be cheaper to maintain and operate. SpaceX is already working on reusable Falcon Heavy rockets designed for deep space exploration like the SLS. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance have contenders of their own, as well. But if the new administration doesn't scrap the project, NASA hopes to send SLS and Orion to space once a year by 2023.
NASA will accept kinds of suggestions to lower the project's costs, including new construction methods and the bulk purchase of materials. If you want the agency to consider your input, though, you'll have to send it in on or before December 23rd.