More SLS Overruns–This Time the Ground Segment

More SLS Overruns–This Time the Ground Segment

NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued another critical report today about NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).  In this case, it audited the construction of two Mobile Launchers at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) needed to transport SLS rockets from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad.  Almost $1 billion has been spent on the first Mobile Launcher, far more than budgeted, and it is three years late.  The report details what happened, but its recommendations focus on what needs to be learned for building the second to avoid similar outcomes.

The SLS is comprised of a central core plus two Solid Rocket Boosters on the sides, an upper stage, and the Orion capsule for the crew.  All of those components are put together inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, attached to the Mobile Launcher, and moved to the launch pad aboard a crawler-transporter.

KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building (upper left) and Mobile Launcher 1 atop the crawler-transporter (lower right). Credit: NASA

NASA began construction of the first Mobile Launcher, ML-1, in 2008 for the Constellation program that was underway during George W. Bush’s Administration. The rocket then under development was Ares I and the contract to build ML-1 was for $234 million.

President Obama cancelled the Constellation program, but Congress directed NASA to build a different new rocket, SLS, in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, and to use existing infrastructure to the maximum extent feasible.  NASA then began modifying ML-1 to accommodate the larger, heavier SLS.

SLS is now part of the Trump Administration’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024 and establish a sustainable program of lunar exploration and resource utilization thereafter.  ML-1 is needed for at least the first three launches of SLS — Artemis I, II and III — which will use an initial version of the rocket called Block I.  A larger version, Block IB, with a more capable Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) is also in development, and there are plans for an even more powerful Block II that would be similar to the Apollo program’s Saturn V.

ML-1 can accommodate only Block I.  A second Mobile Launcher, ML-2, is under development for the Block IB.

The Mobile Launchers are part of Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), which support the SLS and Orion programs, all of which are overseen by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).

Planned versions of the Space Launch System (SLS). Credit: NASA

The OIG report found that as of January 2020, it has cost $693 million to modify the ML-1 from its original design. That is $308 million more than estimated and three years late.  Adding the cost of the original contract, the program is now close to $1 billion.

After nearly a decade of development at a cost of at least $927 million—$234 million for the development of the original Ares I mobile launcher base and tower and $693 million for SLS-related design and modification projects—ML-1 is nearing completion to play its part in the launch of Artemis I, the first integrated, uncrewed flight test of the SLS/Orion system. — NASA Inspector General

The OIG warns:  “Looking ahead, the project faces a risk of further cost and schedule slippage as ML-1 completes testing for Artemis I and undergoes modifications for Artemis II.”

The report details what went wrong, criticizing in particular NASA’s acquisition strategy, especially its choice of Vencore Services and Solutions as one of the primary contractors without competition.  NASA did not renew the contract with Vencore in 2017 “due to Vencore’s overall performance” even though it had rated Vencore “excellent,” “very good,” or “good” when determining award fees.

The ML-1 project experienced numerous design errors during the outfitting of the tower that resulted in cabling and structural design conflicts, equipment that did not work as intended, and issues with the fabrication of the umbilicals. NASA exacerbated these issues by accepting unproven and untested designs from Vencore in order to advance the construction and fabrication contracts.

Other factors affecting the cost and schedule included immature or undefined requirements for SLS and Orion that caused many design changes.

The focus of the report was on the lessons NASA should be learning from ML-1 as it proceeds with ML-2.   The OIG credits NASA for taking “positive steps,” but “found the Agency is missing opportunities to increase performance for development of the $486 million ML-2….”

The report made four recommendations, all targeted at how NASA should execute the ML-2 program to avoid similar outcomes.  They include separating ML-2 from the rest of the EGS program when establishing an Agency Baseline Commitment (ABC) for its cost and schedule.

1. Identify immature vehicle load and interface requirements for the ML-2 project and coordinate with appropriate offices to mitigate cost and schedule risks.
2. Develop a process to ensure contractor performance ratings and related award fees for the ML-2 contract are consistent with established criteria and project outcomes.
3. Ensure life-cycle and milestone reviews incorporate programmatic and technical risks and are conducted with the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and other senior Agency officials.
4. Require the ML-2 project to develop an ABC separate from the EGS Program.

Doug Loverro, the head of HEOMD, concurred with all of them in a letter published at the end of the report, although establishing a separate ABC will wait until next year.

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