NASA Commits to SLS Launch Readiness in November 2018, $7 Billion for Development

NASA Commits to SLS Launch Readiness in November 2018, $7 Billion for Development

With short notice, NASA held a teleconference today to announce the results of the Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review of the Space Launch System (SLS).  NASA officials said the agency is making a commitment that the new rocket will be ready by November 2018 at a development cost of about $7 billion, with a Joint Confidence Level (JCL) of 70 percent.  They emphasized that they do not consider the new date a schedule slip even though it is almost a year later than the previous projection, but instead reflects an acknowledgement that margin is needed in case unexpected problems arise and therefore the agency does not want to make a formal commitment to the original December 2017 date.

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, the highest ranking civil servant in the agency, and NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier, were upbeat about the status of SLS.  Lightfoot is a former Director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which manages the SLS program, and in his current capacity chaired the KDP-C process.   This is the first time the process has been used for a human spaceflight program.

NASA flight programs go through an array of phases, gates and milestones with letter designations that can confuse the most intent listener — Phases A, B, C, D, and E; SDR, PDR and CDR; and KDP-A, -B, -C and so forth.   Each has specific meaning for those deeply involved in the programs, but KDP-C is perhaps the most significant for both internal and external stakeholders.  It is the point at which NASA makes an agency-level commitment to the cost and schedule for a program against which schedule slips or cost overruns will be measured.  NASA currently uses a “Joint Confidence Level” (JCL) computation as part of the process before committing to a program’s cost or schedule because of problems in the past.   NASA’s internal guidance calls for using a 70 percent JCL  — which means there is a 70 percent chance the program will meet the cost and schedule estimate and a 30 percent chance it will not.   Previously, NASA used a 50 percent probability (at best), resulting in a large number of programs with cost overruns and delays.  The challenge in using the higher probability is that more money is needed in the early stages of a program, which can be a problem in a budget-constrained environment.

Earlier this year, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) that NASA would not use a 70 percent JCL for the SLS program and he was comfortable with that because of the maturity of many of the SLS systems, some of which (like the engines) are from the space shuttle program.  Apparently the agency’s position on that issue has changed.

Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier announced that the “development” cost estimate for SLS from February 2014 through the first launch — whose date was not announced — at a 70 percent confidence level is $7.021 billion.  That does not include “formulation” costs over the past three years.  If those are included, the total is $9.695 billion, Gerstenmaier said. 

The estimate does not include any costs associated with the since-cancelled Constellation program or costs beyond the first launch.  In fact, Gerstenmaier and Lightfoot repeatedly stressed that SLS is a series of launch vehicles.  These development costs are for the initial version capable of taking 70 metric tons (MT) to low Earth orbit (LEO).   NASA plans to build 105 MT and 130 MT versions as part of its effort to send people to Mars someday.

Another point the two officials stressed is that this KDP-C review and associated estimates are only for SLS.  The main purpose for SLS is to take astronauts beyond LEO aboard the Orion spacecraft.  Launches will take place from Kennedy Space Center, FL, where ground infrastructure is needed to process and launch SLS/Orion.   Separate KDP-Cs will be conducted for the ground systems and Orion.  Only after those are completed can NASA determine an integrated schedule that will set the date for the first launch.   Gerstenmaier extolled media participating in the teleconference not to get “hung up on the first launch date.”   November 2018 is just the date NASA is willing to commit to for SLS to be ready — a “launch readiness” date.   Not a date when the first launch will take place.   In fact, Gerstenmaier insisted that the SLS team is continuing to work towards the original December 2017 launch readiness date for SLS and there is a “reasonable chance” it will be ready by then, but the agency-level commitment is November 2018.

Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier also emphasized that the cost and schedule estimates assume current (FY2014) funding and amounts included in the FY2015 request and associated projections.  Those projections are for 5 years — through FY2019.   That should take the program through the first SLS launch, designated EM-1, which will launch an unoccupied Orion spacecraft for a 3-week test flight to cislunar space.  NASA has been saying that the second SLS launch, EM-2, which will be the first to carry a crew, would take place in 2021, but today Gerstenmaier said 2021 or 2022.  The launch rate thereafter is only once “every couple of years,” Lightfoot said.  One criticism of SLS is that there is no use for it other than to send people beyond LEO and the agency does not have enough funding to do that very often.  Although there is talk about using SLS for space science missions, including launching spacecraft to the outer planets and their moons, the cost may be prohibitive.

NASA is building the SLS and Orion as part of a compromise between Congress and the Obama Administration that was reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.   In February 2010, President Obama submitted his FY2011 budget request to Congress wherein he revealed his plan to cancel the Constellation program begun by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars.  Instead, he wanted to spend money on “game changing” technologies before deciding what, if any, new rocket NASA should build.  In the meantime, he wanted to turn transportation of astronauts to LEO, including the International Space Station, over to the commercial sector — called “commercial crew.”  The proposal created a firestorm and led both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to insist that NASA itself — not the commercial sector — build a new large rocket and spacecraft to take astronauts beyond LEO as a replacement for Constellation. 

After months of rancorous debate, the compromise was to do both:  NASA was allowed to proceed with the commercial crew program for LEO, and is building SLS/Orion for beyond LEO as Congress demanded.  The agency was not given a larger budget to accommodate the increased responsibilities, however, leading to continued criticism that NASA is being asked to do too much with too little.  Debate also continues on what the next destination should be for the human spaceflight program — an asteroid (as President Obama wants) or the Moon (as many human spaceflight advocates and potential international partners want) — though there is widespread agreement that the ultimate destination is Mars. 

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