Loverro Takes the Helm at HEOMD, Bridenstine Pushes Back on $2 Billion SLS Cost Estimate

Loverro Takes the Helm at HEOMD, Bridenstine Pushes Back on $2 Billion SLS Cost Estimate

Doug Loverro has reported for duty at NASA as the new Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).  He succeeds Bill Gerstenmaier, who was abruptly dismissed from the job by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in July.  Bridenstine introduced Loverro to the NASA workforce in a Town Hall meeting today and the two answered a bevy of questions. One concerned the estimate, put forward by the White House, that each Space Launch System (SLS) launch will cost $2 billion. Bridenstine pushed back, saying he thinks it will be much less.

Bridenstine announced Loverro’s selection for the job in October, but he joined the agency just yesterday.  His background is in national security space, most recently in policy positions, but over more than 40 years as an Air Force officer and then in civilian government positions, he has managed several major programs.

Loverro is taking on a big job. He is in charge of managing NASA’s human spaceflight program, from operating the International Space Station (ISS) including the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs; facilitating commercial space stations to replace ISS; and developing the systems to achieve the Trump Administration’s directive to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024 — the Artemis program — and go on to Mars in the 2030s.  That includes the NASA-owned  Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft, plus the Gateway and Human Landing Systems that are being procured through public-private partnerships (PPPs) where the companies will own the hardware and NASA will purchase services from them.  He also is in charge of NASA’s space- and ground-based communications networks and acquisition of commercial launch services for science and other NASA missions.  All in all, he oversees a portfolio of about $10 billion, roughly half NASA’s annual budget.

The Town Hall meeting today was a chance for NASA employees to meet him and ask questions, primarily through an online system that provided anonymity.  Many were directed at Bridenstine rather than Loverro and included the question of why Gerstenmaier was removed.

Gerstenmaier is highly admired and respected and his ouster came as quite a shock to the space community. Bridenstine reiterated that “we love” Gerstenmaier and he is still working at NASA as an advisor to Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. But after years of reports from the NASA Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticizing poor management of the SLS, Orion, and commercial crew programs, it was time for a change.

[Update: Gerstenmaier’s last day at NASA was just four days later, December 6, 2019.]

Transitions are difficult, and one questioner asked what will happen to actions that emerged under Gerstenmaier’s stewardship in response to “major technical dissenting opinions” regarding flight risks with the first two Artemis missions. “Mr. Gerstenmaier listened to these carefully, wrote and issued detailed minutes” and assigned actions.  “Are these in limbo?”

Loverro assured the audience that he will look at “every one of them” over the next three months.  “We need to satisfy ourselves that we’ve got the right answer.  And if we don’t have the right answer, we’ll change.”

Bridenstine has said that he would wait to make major announcements about SLS and Orion, such as launch dates, until the new Associate Administrator (AA) had time to review them because he will hold that person accountable for executing them on time and on cost.  If Loverro spends three months doing that, he will be ready right in time for the FY2021 budget season.  The White House submits its annual budget request to Congress in February. Bridenstine has promised that NASA’s FY2021 budget request will include a cost estimate for Artemis — that is, the additional cost above what was planned in its FY2020 budget projections to accelerate the Moon landing from 2028 to 2024. The White House has not yet told Congress what that cost is.  It has only requested an additional $1.6 billion for FY2020.

Those budget requests are prepared by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Illustration of the Space Launch System in its Block 1 configuration. Credit: NASA

Today Bridenstine disagreed with OMB on how much an SLS launch will cost.  That number has become a rallying cry for critics who see no need for a government-owned system in an era when companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are planning very large rockets of their own.  SLS advocates point out that those are only plans whereas SLS is actually being built and with the goal of landing people on the Moon in just 5 years, the only answer. They also envision SLS being used for other missions, such as launching the robotic Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter.

It was in that context that OMB wrote to Senate appropriators last month urging them to delete language in the FY2020 appropriations bill now working its way through Congress that requires NASA to launch Europa Clipper on SLS.  The OMB letter used “over $2 billion” as the estimated cost of an SLS launch, arguing that is $1.5 billion more than a commercial launch.  The $2 billion figure has been widely cited since then as an  official cost estimate.

Bridenstine was asked about it today, and disagreed. “I do not agree with the $2 billion number. It is far less than that. I would also say the number comes way down when you buy more than one or two. I think in the end we’re going to be in the $800-900 million range.”  NASA has bought only two SLS launches so far and negotiations are just starting on the third and fourth, he added.

NASA announced in October that it authorized Boeing to begin building the core stage for the third rocket, which will launch the crew that lands on the Moon, while negotiations are underway to buy up to 10 as well as up to eight Exploration Upper Stages. The contract is to be finalized “within the next year.”

His enthusiasm for SLS stands in stark contrast to the situation just a few months ago.  In March, Bridenstine surprised a Senate committee by announcing that NASA was looking at alternatives to the Boeing-built SLS because it was experiencing additional delays.  Just two weeks later, Vice President Pence issued the directive that NASA accelerate, not delay, plans to land people on the Moon and warned “if our current contractor can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will.”

Loverro considers SLS “absolutely mandatory” to get to the Moon, but as one part of a “large ecosystem” of launch vehicles including commercial providers.  “I refuse to consider it an either/or.”

He is now the one who will determine when SLS will fly and negotiate costs, along with managing the rest of the human spaceflight program.  He has his work cut out for him.


This article has been updated.

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