SLS and EGS Costs Grow with Latest Launch Slip to At Least November 2021

SLS and EGS Costs Grow with Latest Launch Slip to At Least November 2021

NASA says it is confident the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS), Artemis I, will take place by November 2021, but is hedging on setting a target launch date.  If it goes at that time, it will be a full three years beyond what NASA committed to when SLS was formally confirmed in 2014.  Costs are growing commensurately.

Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, revealed the new cost and schedule estimates in a blog post.

If the launch is in November 2021, the development cost estimates for the SLS rocket and its associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) are $9.1 billion and $2.4 billion respectively, approximately 30 percent increases each. The new estimates represent only development costs. Earlier formulation costs and anything needed after Artemis I are not included.

Lueders said Congress has been notified.

Artemis I is an uncrewed flight test of SLS and the Orion spacecraft that one day will carry crews beyond low Earth orbit. The first flight with a crew, Artemis II, is expected in 2023.

Lueders’ carefully written statement did not make a formal commitment to November 2021 for Artemis I.  Instead she said it is “too early to predict the full impact of COVID-19,” but NASA is “confident a November 2021 date is achievable.”

NASA also is the process of conducting a series of tests of the SLS core stage called the Green Run. The final test, firing all four engines on a test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for the full 8-minute duration needed to reach orbit, is scheduled for October. After that test, NASA will be able “to better predict a target launch date” for Artemis I.

If the launch does happen in November 2021, it will be three years late and about 30 percent over budget.

In congressional testimony 11 months ago, Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provided a table comparing the original estimates with a re-plan that took place in December 2017.

The new estimate for SLS is $9.1 billion compared to the original 2014 estimate of $7.021 billion. EGS now is $2.4 billion, compared to its original estimate of $1.843 billion.  Both are roughly 30 percent increases.

Last year GAO also found that NASA was underreporting the cost growth in the SLS program by $782 million.

NASA makes formal commitments to Congress and other stakeholders on a project’s cost and schedule following a milestone review called Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C).  A project’s performance is judged against that baseline. By law, NASA must notify Congress if a project breaches the baseline by certain percentages. If the breach is 30 percent or more, Congress must reauthorize the project.

Previous cost growth and schedule delays have created dismay in the halls of Congress, but no discernible action.

SLS owes its existence to Congress, which directed NASA to build it and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The action followed President Obama’s decision that year to cancel the Constellation program begun by the George W. Bush Administration to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and go on to Mars. The Ares I and Ares V rockets in development for Constellation were terminated, but immediately replaced by SLS. Orion also was part of Constellation, but NASA chose it as the MPCV so it survived.  It has been in development since 2006.

Today’s announcement did not address cost growth for Orion. When NASA made its KDP-C commitment on Orion, it covered through the second launch, not the first. The formal commitment date was 2023 although internally NASA was working toward that  launch in 2021. That has slipped two years and is now back at the original commitment date of 2023.  Lueders’ blog post said Orion “remains within original targets.”

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