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Report: NASA’s SLS Rocket Over Budget, Behind Schedule

Artist's concept of SLS/Orion on the launch pad. Photo: NASA

NASA’s new deep-space rocket, the Space Launch System, is over-budget and behind schedule according to a new government report looking at the agency’s contract with Boeing.

NASA has already spent $11.9 billion so far developing the SLS for its first mission. Now a report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General said Boeing will need about $8.9 billion more to build, test and deliver the rocket hardware.

SLS is a two-stage rocket that can carry a crew on NASA’s Orion space capsule or send cargo into space. Boeing is building the fuel tanks on the first stage of the rocket, called the Core Stage, and developing the second stage of SLS, called the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS). Boeing has a contract to build two core stages and the EUS.

The first SLS mission is targeting a launch in 2020, but the report estimates there will be additional delays. The OIG report blames poor management for the budget blow-out.

“We found that several poor contract management practices by NASA contributed to the SLS Program’s cost and schedule overruns,” the report said. “Contrary to current federal guidance, NASA lacks visibility into the Boeing Stages contract costs because all three of the company’s key activities—development of Core Stages 1 and 2 and the EUS—are co-mingled into the same contract line item number, making it difficult for [NASA] to track expenditures.”

Boeing said it has already restructured its leadership team to better align with program challenges and believes it will result in a successful delivery of the core stage. “The program described in the OIG’s report does not represent the Space Launch System program today,” said Boeing in a statement. “We are refining our approaches and tools to ensure a successful transition from development to production. We believe that these actions will result in a successful delivery of Core Stage 1 and establish a firm foundation that will serve the program’s long term objectives.”

The Space Launch System is designed to take astronauts into deep space, places like the moon and other destinations including Mars. The first SLS mission, EM-1, would send and uncrewed Orion space capsule on a trip around the moon. The second mission, EM-2, plans to send astronauts on a lunar flyby.

NASA also planned a science mission to explore Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Scientists believe there could be a liquid ocean under the moon’s icy surface which could contain signs of life. The OIG said a delay in Boeing’s delivery of the core stages could affect a Europa science mission.

“The Space Launch System is critical to the future of human exploration beyond Earth and is the largest and most complex launch system that NASA has developed,” the agency said. “NASA has experienced several challenges associated with design, development, and manufacturing of such a large and highly complex system for the first time, in particular with the SLS core stage effort, which has the greatest amount of new development work of any of the SLS elements. The agency fully supports the SLS program and the core stage prime contractor, Boeing, as they have already overcome many challenges and continue to show major improvements in efficiency and management.”

In the report, the OIG recommended actions for NASA leadership to increase the sustainability, accountability, and transparency of NASA’s efforts to develop the SLS Core Stages and EUS, including a complete review and renegotiation of the contract.

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »