NASA rockets draining its pockets as officials whisper: 'We can't afford this'

Watchdog finds space agency has no plans to measure SLS production costs

NASA has received another kick from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) as space agency officials said the quiet part out aloud: "The SLS program is unaffordable."

The remarks from senior NASA officials to the GAO [full report here – PDF] should be put in the context of current cost levels, but still represent a serious admission from the agency.

The SLS (Space Launch System) is NASA's most powerful rocket. The first, Artemis I, was launched in November 2022, and NASA is spending billions of dollars on the components for subsequent, ever more complex missions.

While Artemis I was uncrewed, Artemis II will fly humans around the Moon in 2024. Artemis III is supposed to land crew on the lunar surface in 2025. The dates of both latter missions are likely to shift, and the scope of Artemis III could be quite different depending in part on the availability of a landing system.

It is the ongoing costs of the Artemis program that are vexing the GAO. The expense and schedule commitments of the SLS were tied to Artemis I, but the costs needed to keep things rolling are not monitored, according to the watchdog.

NASA created a rolling five-year estimate of production and operation costs to keep within budget. "However, neither the estimate nor the annual budget request track costs by Artemis mission[s] or for recurring production items," noted the GAO.

"As a result, the five-year estimate and the budget requests are poor measures of cost performance over time."

The GAO continued: "As of July 2023, the program has not updated its five-year production and operations cost estimate to reflect the current expected costs for the SLS program."

It's rather alarming considering that NASA has requested $11.2 billion in the fiscal 2024 budget to fund the program through fiscal 2028. This is on top of the $11.8 billion spent on developing the initial capability.

NASA is aware of the issues. GAO noted senior officials within the agency believed the SLS program to be unsustainable at its current cost levels, exceeding what NASA reckons it will have available for the Artemis missions.

As well as fiddling with its acquisition strategies, NASA also knows the flight schedule must be stabilized. Uncertainty around when and where the rocket will fly only adds to the difficulties in forecasting costs. While some within NASA didn't see an impact on cost estimates from date changes, others expected an increase thanks to the shift of the Artemis IV launch from 2026 to 2028.

Delays and cost overruns have long been features of the SLS program. The GAO report indicates that the latter, at least, doesn't seem to be going away any time soon. ®

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