SLS: $17 Billion And Counting, with First Launch Still a Year Away

SLS: $17 Billion And Counting, with First Launch Still a Year Away

The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a new report on the cost and schedule for the Saturn V-class Space Launch System (SLS) NASA is building to send people to the Moon and Mars.  Already over cost and behind schedule, the report offers no good news about either as NASA and the vehicle’s prime contractor, Boeing, get ready for a major test this summer.

NASA’s OIG and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have been tracking the SLS program for years, reporting on its cost growth and schedule delays.  Today’s report tells the same tale.

By the end of FY2020, SLS will have cost more than $17 billion. By the time of its first launch, now expected in 2021, the tab will be at least $18.3 billion.

Congress directed NASA to build SLS in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The decision came after President Obama cancelled the Constellation program that President George W. Bush was pursuing to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday go to Mars.  Soon after taking office, Obama set up an independent panel that concluded NASA would need $3 billion a year more to achieve that goal.  With the country in an economic tailspin, he was not willing to spend that much and decided to cancel Constellation in his FY2011 budget proposal released in February 2010.

But Bush had decided to kill the space shuttle program as soon as construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was completed around 2010.  With the space shuttle ending and Constellation nixed, that meant no U.S. human spaceflight program beyond ISS, an intolerable situation for Democratic and Republican human spaceflight advocates in Congress.  The 2010 NASA Authorization Act was Congress’s answer.  Yes, Bush’s Ares I and Ares V rockets would be cancelled, but NASA would build a different new big rocket instead, SLS, with detailed specifications in the law as to what its capabilities must be, an unusual step.  The law also required NASA to build a “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” (MPCV) to go with it.  NASA kept the Orion capsule already under development by Lockheed Martin as the MPCV.

As the OIG report details, NASA signed contracts with Boeing, ATK (now part of Northrop Grumman) and Aerojet Rocketdyne in 2011 and 2012 to build SLS.  The rocket consists of a core stage with four RS-25 engines repurposed from the space shuttle program, two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) on the sides that are derivatives of those for the space shuttle, and an upper stage.

Boeing builds the core and two upper stages — the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for the first three flights (at least) and a more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) for the future.  It also is the prime contractor for the entire system.  Northrop Grumman builds the SRBs and Aerojet Rocketdyne provides the engines.

Artist’s illustration of the Space Launch System (SLS). The core stage is orange, with two white SRBs on the sides and the upper stage and Orion crew capsule on top. Credit: NASA

In 2014, NASA committed to Congress that development of the initial version, Block I, would cost $7.01 billion from February 2014 to the first launch, then expected in November 2018.  If formulation costs were included, the total was $9.695 billion. The 2018 date was a year later than a previous projection, but NASA programs formally are measured against the point at which the agency makes a firm “Agency Baseline Commitment” (ABC) following a milestone called Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C).

The date for the first launch slipped to December 2019-June 2020 and then into 2021.  NASA currently does not have a firm date for that launch, Artemis I, but NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, the highest ranking civil servant at the agency, said last week it would be in mid-late 2021.

That launch will carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a test flight around the Moon.  The next, Artemis II, will carry a crew for the first time on a test flight.  The third will be part of the transportation system to return astronauts to surface of the Moon, which the Trump Administration plans for late 2024.

Today’s OIG report concludes that SLS exceeded its ABC by 33 percent by the end of FY2019, “a figure that could reach 43 percent or higher” if the first launch is delayed beyond November 2020.

“This is due to cost increases tied to development of Artemis I and a December 2017 replan that removed almost $1 billion of costs from the Program’s ABC without lowering the baseline, thereby masking the impact of Artemis I’s projected 19-month schedule delay from November 2018 to June 2020.”

By the end of FY2020, NASA will have spent $17 billion “including almost $6 billion not tracked or reported as part of the ABC.”  The OIG estimated the cost at $18.3 billion if the launch takes place in the spring of 2021. As noted, however, the most recent estimate is later than that.

The OIG made five recommendations.  NASA concurred with all of them.  First is that NASA notify Congress that the program exceeded its baseline cost by more than 30 percent.  That is a reporting requirement set by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 109-155) similar to the Nunn-McCurdy limits for DOD.

In a response published at the end of the report, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Doug Loverro and Acting Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Thomas Whitmeyer wrote that NASA is in the process of conducting assessments of the SLS program.  They include an independent technical and programmatic assessment and a new joint cost and schedule confidence level (JCL) analysis.

“NASA leadership will review the results of these assessments and then rebaseline the SLS program. NASA will communicate the results of these reviews to Congress and will comply with all applicable reporting requirements.”  They estimated that will be completed by April 30, 2020.

Boeing said in an emailed statement that building a rocket to safely and efficiently send people to the Moon “certainly had its cost and schedule challenges over the years. … The hard-earned experience acquired during initial SLS development is resulting in significant savings and efficiencies in subsequent development and production.”

Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne declined to comment.

First SLS core stage being loaded onto Pegasus barge (silver unit in background) with red covers over its four RS-25 engines for transport from the Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA, to Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, MS, January 8, 2020. Credit: NASA

The first SLS core stage is complete and arrived at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in mid-January for a “Green Run” test this summer.The core stage with its four RS-25 engines will be set on an enormous test stand and fired for 8 minutes, the full duration they will have to operate to get to orbit.  Assuming all goes well, the core stage then will be shipped to Kennedy Space Center for integration with the SRBs, ICPS, and Orion spacecraft.

Jurczyk said last week that “when we get the core stage, hopefully in the late summer/early fallish time frame, from Stennis to Kennedy we’ll be flowing the vehicle through KSC and integrating for launch hopefully in the mid-’21 time frame, mid-to-late ’21 time frame.”

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