Boots on Moon? Well, the boot part is right: Audit of NASA's Space Launch System reveals more delays, cost overruns

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The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) has pulled on the hobnailed boots to deliver an almighty kicking to the US space agency over its Space Launch System (SLS).

Published yesterday, the audit (PDF) pulls no punches in its description of the challenges faced by NASA in its attempt to get the monster rocket up and running in time to meet the goal of a 2024 human landing on the Moon.

NASA has contracted with three companies – Boeing (core and upper stage), Aerojet-Rocketdyne (engines) and Northrop Grumman (solid rocket boosters) – to develop the major elements of the SLS. The most recent "official" date for the maiden, uncrewed, launch was November 2020. However, the report notes that NASA now expects that to slip to spring 2021, and those costs keep on rising.

The report also noted that NASA was struggling to determine precise costs per element due to the structure of the contracts it had issued and went on to state that the SLS program had blown past the Agency Baseline Commitment (ABC) given to the US Congress "by at least 33 per cent at the end of fiscal year 2019".

The expected delay of that first SLS launch – Artemis I – could push that figure to 43 per cent "or higher".

Worse still, the OIG found that ABC cost reporting only tracked Artemis I-related activities rather than the whole SLS programme. It observed that "by the end of fiscal year 2020, NASA will have spent more than $17bn on the SLS Program – including almost $6bn not tracked or reported as part of the ABC."

The auditors, having put the boot into Boeing in their 2018 report, noted that things were now improving, although schedule and cost pressures remained. The first core stage of the SLS had had its engines fitted and had been shipped for Green Run testing. However, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for the upper stage of Artemis I had seen more than a doubling of costs following initial estimates in 2014. Work on its successor, the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), needed for more ambitious missions, has also somewhat stalled as Boeing focused on getting the Core Stage complete.

Northrop Grumman and Aerojet have also experienced issues, according to the report, with problems relating to the Booster's propellant liner and insulation, and a new Engine Controller Unit for the Shuttle era RS-25 engines proving difficult to overcome. The bean counters expected another $1.4bn of cost increases (comprised of $1.3bn for the stages, $107m for boosters and $42m for the ICPS) before the first Artemis I launch.

Still, things might be a bit more efficient in the future if NASA applies "lessons learned from the current development phase".

Assuming NASA continues digging the SLS money pit, the recommendations are straightforward – get better at tracking costs and performance, and for goodness' sake, somebody needs to officially tell Congress that the SLS programme has exceeded its ABC "by at least 30 per cent". ®

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