NASA spanks $34bn on a disposable rocket – likely to top $50bn by 2024 moon landing

Inspector General's report slams agency for overly optimistic costings

NASA's Office of the Inspector General has emitted a report (PDF) yesterday that made for difficult reading for agency bigwigs, as the bean counters made clear the challenges presented by the agency's headlong rush to the Moon.

As NASA has lurched from one presidential goal to another over the last decade (the latest being the Trumpian 2024 lunar landing deadline) the agency has kept the money taps open.

Naturally, it was the agency's flagship Space Launch System (SLS) that copped much of the flack as inspectors noted that it, combined with the Orion capsule and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) – the infrastructure to actually launch stuff – was costing the earth.

Through 2019 the agency will have spent "roughly" $34bn on SLS, Orion and EGS, a figure that includes the work done up until now. With a budget increase of anywhere from $20bn to $30bn needed in order to meet US President Donald Trump's arbitrary 2024 deadline, the final figure will be north of $50bn.

As a reminder, the engines of SLS are leftovers from the Space Shuttle program, and a large portion of the technology used is derived from legacy hardware.

The OIG noted that both Artemis 1 and 2, the first uncrewed and crewed missions respectively, are about two years behind schedule and have seen costs jump by $2.6bn. The official launch for Artemis 1 remains in 2020 (just) while Artemis 2 is due to send humans around the Moon in 2023.

The third Artemis mission will land humans on the Moon using a lunar lander. The OIG optimistically stated the lander would dock with the yet-to-be-launched Lunar Gateway. More realistically, it observed that (as is likely) should Artemis 1 slip into 2021, then the dates for subsequent missions may drift to the right.

The usual suspects remained in the frame, as the OIG reminded readers that it had warned that Boeing would need another $2bn just to get two core SLS stages done even without completing the Exploration Upper Stage needed for more exciting deep space missions. It also reckoned NASA's award fees were a tad over-generous in the face of cost increases and schedule slippage.

Too big to fail?

Of course, the SLS makes for an easy target, it being big and orange. The OIG also had a pop at the rest of NASA's work, pointing to an average cost growth of 27.6 per cent in nine out of 17 major projects and launch delays of approximately 17 months.

Unsurprisingly, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) got special attention, being 81 months late and $4.4bn over budget as of May 2019.

While the OIG noted that NASA had made improvements thanks to initiatives such as the Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) analysis, it also cited what it called a "Culture of Optimism" as a significant factor. While optimism does encourage innovation, the reluctance of the agency to cancel major projects due to poor cost and schedule performance has caused a "too big to fail" mindset, the report warned.

Getting real about International Space Station access and exiting by 2024

Finally, the OIG looked at how the agency intended to extract itself from the sprawling ISS project which currently consumes about half of NASA's human spaceflight budget.

The ISS, said the report, is the only place where research into the health risks of long-term space flight can be conducted as well as demonstrations of technology to be used on missions to the Moon or Mars. A retirement by 2024 would mean that eight out of 20 health risk research projects would not be completed as well four of 37 technology studies.

And then there is the crew issue. Thanks to continued delays from the Commercial Crew vendors (SpaceX and Boeing) it is highly likely that the number of US crew onboard the ISS will drop to 1 in 2020, severely limiting the science that can get done. With Russia cutting Soyuz production in half and NASA's waiver to buy Soyuz seats expiring at the end of 2020, the US cannot rely on its former space-race rival to pick up the slack.

Ultima Thule (pic: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

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Despite NASA putting $17.8bn toward the development of commercial crew and cargo vehicles (as of April 2018) neither SpaceX nor Boeing had managed to fly a human. SpaceX sent an uncrewed Crew Dragon to the ISS in 2019 (before accidentally blowing the thing up shortly after) and Boeing plans its own uncrewed ISS flight by the end of 2019 and a crewed mission in early 2020, the OIG sniffed that it believed the dates "are unrealistic".

As for NASA extracting itself from the ISS, the OIG observed that: "Realistically, the ISS will require significant federal funding beyond 2025 given the current limited commercial market interested in assuming the Station’s operational costs."

Overall, NASA's main problem has remained the short-termism of successive US administrations. While long-term programmes such as Shuttle, Apollo or the ISS survived with (relatively) bi-partisan support, the agency's goals over the last decade or so have changed with the changing of administration, meaning that the boffins have lacked a clear and consistent focus.

"Consequently," the report stated, "achieving a constancy of purpose is perhaps the greatest overall challenge facing NASA." ®

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