Cost Overruns Threaten To Delay First Launch Of NASA’s SLS Rocket

A blistering report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) today casts doubt on the timeline of the Space Launch System (SLS) that is being developed by NASA and Boeing for future missions to the Moon and Mars. As reported by Ars Technica, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin leaves little doubt as to the cause for delays.

“We found Boeing’s poor performance is the main reason for the significant cost increases and schedule delays to developing the SLS core stage. Specifically, the project’s cost and schedule issues stem primarily from management, technical, and infrastructure issues directly related to Boeing’s performance.”

The original goal for delivery of the first core stage was June 2017, but the OIG now estimates that the soonest the first core could be delivered is December 2019, nearly 30 months late. In addition, the SLS project is believed to have burned through $11.9 billion already, with an estimated $1.2 billion more needing to be expended to meet a new June 2020 launch date. In light of those numbers, NASA has no choice but to announce that it cannot meet its expected production schedule.

The Orlando Sentinel quoted Boeing as saying that the report is outdated, and that it has made changes in the organization to meet the challenges of the SLS contract.

“An unprecedented rocket program has inherent challenges; developing the first unit of a system that will safely carry humans into space, even more so. We have restructured our leadership team to better align with current program challenges and we are refining our approaches and tools to ensure a successful transition from development to production.”

The NASA OIG report acknowledges those positive changes, but states that the impact those changes will have on the project going forward are unknown, suggesting that the changes were too recent to have a visible effect thus far.

Boeing is not the only corporation involved in the production of the SLS. Approximately 1,100 contractors with presence in 43 states are also contributing to the project, but Boeing’s portion is by far the largest slice, comprising 40 percent of the total budget. Boeing is also not the only entity to receive criticism from the OIG; NASA itself is responsible for some of the delays, according to Martin’s report, because it didn’t keep a close enough eye on production costs, allowing Boeing to combine all costs in a single line item. This has the effect of keeping NASA in the dark as to the actual cost of specific components, even preventing them from having a good handle on the cost of producing a single core stage. In addition, NASA was found at fault for being too generous with Boeing performance metrics, allowing for unjustified increases to the bottom line over time.

Both NASA and Boeing are said to be already in the process of implementing the recommendations made in the inspector’s report to try and salvage the project timeline, though officials acknowledge that target dates are likely to slip even further into the future.