OCT. 26, 2021–This morning, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center published a request for information detailing the agency’s plans to transition the Space Launch System program from design and development to operational status by Artemis V, a move that the request claims will ensure SLS’s place as a “national capability that is a sustainable and affordable system” for at least the next thirty years.
In order to accomplish this goal, NASA aims to move the effective ownership of SLS to a commercial contractor entity, with the agency only retaining intellectual property. NASA would then become the “anchor tenant” of the new SLS operations system, providing support infrastructure and flying at least one crewed SLS mission yearly for the next decade or more. By spinning off SLS operations onto a unified contractor, NASA aims to be able to allow for the “potential of at least one cargo flight per year,” available to non-NASA customers all while reducing production and operational costs by at least 50%. This would effectively double SLS’s yearly flight rate without increasing program cost.
While the move to “commercialize SLS” may seem absurd at first glance, this is a strategy that NASA is no stranger to. The Space Shuttle program’s many contracts were centralized in 1996 to form the Space Flight Operations Contract, awarded to United Space Alliance, a Lockheed-Rockwell (later Boeing) partnership created with the purpose of carrying out the contract. USA successfully did so until the end of the Shuttle program, and even competed for contracts in the canceled Constellation program, before officially going defunct in 2019.
“NASA’s focus has shifted to laying out SLS’s transition from its design and development stage into a streamlined, continuous operational state intended to endure to 2050 and beyond.”
The SLS program is currently in a similar state to the early Shuttle program, with various contractors taking on different duties individually throughout the developmental phase of the program. In order to move to full operations, NASA’s focus has shifted to laying out SLS’s transition from its design and development stage; into a streamlined, continuous operational state intended to endure to 2050 and beyond. The agency has recently been tackling this problem from multiple angles, including moving all Artemis/SLS operations to the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, transferring all exploration operations under one roof and removing extra overhead associated with Earth orbit operations.
With NASA’s part of centralization complete, the agency is now signaling that the time has come for its contractors to do the same. The Exploration Production and Operations Contract (EPOC) is planned to be issued by December 2023, much in the same way as the Space Flight Operations Contract in 1996. The EPOC contract would set NASA’s long-term vision for SLS operations in motion, with the full transition beginning with Artemis V, currently scheduled for mid-2027. According to the request, EPOC is “envisioned to be a contract in which NASA will purchase launch services and payload delivery, but not take ownership of the flight hardware.”
The Exploration Production and Operations Contract also comes hand-in-hand with a previously announced contract—the Consolidated Operations, Management, Engineering & Test (COMET) contract. COMET, which has already advanced to the draft request for proposals stage, will oversee the management of Kennedy Space Center’s launch infrastructure and ground processing, covering operations under the Orion, SLS, and Exploration Ground Systems programs. The COMET and EPOC contracts are integral to each other, together forming the baseline of SLS operations for decades to come.
These contracts set the stage for NASA to expand the abilities of the SLS rocket and Artemis program significantly. In the request, NASA estimates the operational model under these two contracts will enable “substantial savings of 50% or more off of the current industry baseline per flight cost,” assuming a flight rate of one crewed flight and at least one cargo flight per year. These dramatic savings and expanded flight rates would enable the new contractor to provide launch services with SLS to a wide variety of non-NASA customers, a stated goal of EPOC. Possible uses of a commercially available SLS envisioned by NASA include outer planet exploration, private use, and use by other government agencies.
NASA’s current contractors for the SLS program have also expressed interest in other uses for the rocket. A team of contractors, composed of Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Jacobs, Dynetics, and Northrop Grumman, presented several possible use cases for a commercially available SLS, ranging from commercially available space solar power to Titan landers and interstellar space exploration. The Boeing-led team also proposed the use of SLS Block 1B to fly a version of the LUVOIR space telescope, which could be selected as NASA’s next flagship astronomy mission as soon as November 4.
Whether the Exploration Production and Operations Contract will live up to its full potential is yet to be determined. Regardless, the request marks one of the first public examples of NASA’s long-term commitment to the Artemis and Space Launch System programs. If the vision within the contract is realized, it would mean the dawn of a new era for human space exploration, with the possibility of decades of sustainable exploration missions to come.