GAO: NASA Not Transparent About “Unaffordable” SLS Costs

GAO: NASA Not Transparent About “Unaffordable” SLS Costs

The Government Accountability Office released its most recent review of NASA’s Space Launch System program today, criticizing NASA for a lack of transparency in how much SLS costs. Moreover, GAO said senior NASA officials told them SLS is “unaffordable” at its current level so they are trying to find short- and long-term strategies to reduce costs.

Today’s report is just the latest in the congressional watchdog agency’s oversight of SLS, NASA’s Saturn V-class rocket to return astronauts to the Moon and someday send them to Mars. Boeing is the SLS prime contractor.

The first SLS finally launched last November on the Artemis I uncrewed flight around the Moon to test both the rocket and Lockheed Martin’s Orion crew spacecraft. The 25-day mission was a success, but it will be two years before SLS takes to the skies again. Artemis II is scheduled to send a crew of four on a test flight around the Moon at the end of 2024.

Artemis III is currently on the books to fly at the end of 2025, returning astronauts to the surface of the Moon for the first time since the end of the Apollo program. Many are skeptical, however, that all the necessary systems will be ready by then. Not only SLS and Orion are required, but SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System and spacesuits developed by Axiom Space to protect the astronauts while on the lunar surface. Jim Free, the head of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate who oversees the Artemis program, recently suggested Artemis III could be a “different mission” if all the hardware isn’t ready in time.

What all that means for SLS is a low launch rate, increasing the cost per mission. NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said last year that the first four SLS launches would cost $4.1 billion each.

At the same time, the current version of SLS, Block I, isn’t sufficiently powerful for missions beyond Artemis III. A more capable Block IB is under development and a Block II is on the drawing board.

GAO’s point is that NASA is not providing sufficient data for Congress to know how much all of it will cost.

Because the original SLS version’s cost and schedule commitments, or baselines, were tied to the launch of Artemis I, ongoing production and other costs needed to sustain the program going forward are not monitored. Instead, NASA created a rolling 5-year estimate of production and operations costs to ensure that the costs fit within NASA’s overall budget. However, neither the estimate nor the annual budget request track costs by Artemis mission or for recurring production items. As a result, the 5-year estimate and the budget requests are poor measures of cost performance over time.


Senior NASA officials told GAO that at current cost levels, the SLS program is unaffordable. The SLS program developed a roadmap outlining short-term and long-term cost-saving strategies for future missions. For example, NASA plans to use contract types that shift cost risk from the government to the contractors and that achieve manufacturing efficiencies, but it is too early to determine the effects of such strategies. NASA is also considering long-term options, including purchasing future SLS launches and payload capabilities from a contractor who would own, operate, and integrate the SLS rocket.

GAO acknowledges that NASA is taking steps to improve affordability, but the thrust of the report is how NASA is accounting for costs. GAO has made recommendations to NASA about this in the past. Today’s report reiterates that NASA needs to implement them.

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