NASA’s monster Space Launch System still costs too much and is taking too long

NASA’s Office of Inspector General has some grim news about the Space Launch System, the monster, heavy-lift rocket that the space agency hopes will take astronauts back to the moon by 2024. Costs continue to skyrocket, and the schedule continues to slip farther into the future.

The report found that the cost of the Space Launch System had exceeded the congressionally mandated baseline by 33 percent by November 2019. The cost will exceed the baseline by 43 percent or more if the launch date of Artemis 1 is pushed back beyond November 2020. Since the launch of the Artemis 1 is now scheduled for some time in 2021, the Space Launch System is becoming a bigger problem than before.

The NASA OIG report has several recommendations, which start with the space agency going to Congress and begging for mercy. No reason exists for Congress not to grant the extra money. The SLS has been a congressionally mandated project ever since 2010, shortly after President Barack Obama summarily cancelled the Bush 43-era Constellation Project, causing a rift between the White House and Congress over space policy.

The original plan by the Obama administration was to conduct five-year studies for deep space propulsion technology and a new heavy-lift vehicle. In no sense was there any commitment to go back to the moon, Mars or anyplace else at the end of these studies. Suspecting that the Obama administration wanted to study the idea of deep space exploration to death, a classic bureaucratic maneuver, Congress mandated the Space Launch System, stipulating that it would use legacy shuttle and Saturn V technology.

The theory behind using older but proven technology was that it would ensure that the SLS could be developed quickly and cheaply. However, reality has not proven the theory to be correct. Ten years later, with NASA once again headed back to the moon, the space agency is stuck with a white elephant of a big rocket.

One alternative that has been floated by experts outside NASA has been to scrap the Space Launch System and go with a commercial rocket. SpaceX has been working on the reusable heavy-lift system called the Starship. Elon Musk’s engineers have been cheerfully blowing up prototypes in the quest to build a true reusable spaceship that can reach the surface of the moon or Mars.

The problem with going commercial is both political and practical. The Space Launch System has too many supporters in Congress for NASA to scrap it and hand the return to the moon to Musk’s merry band in Boca Chica. Also, the space agency harbors doubts that SpaceX will be ready by the due date for the next moon landing of 2024.

The fact that Boeing is the prime contractor for the Space Launch System is a matter of concern. Boeing has had serious problems with other high-profile projects, including the 737-Max and the Starliner commercial crew vehicle. After the latter spacecraft had a less than optimal uncrewed flight when it failed to dock with the International Space Station, a study revealed that Boeing had failed to adequately test the vehicle’s software. If similar problems arise for the Space Launch System, it might not be ready for the 2024 first moon landing either.

The NASA OIG is recommending that NASA conduct a review of the Space Launch System product and try to get a handle on why the costs keep soaring and the rocket keeps not soaring. The underlying cause is that the contract for the SLS is cost plus, with NASA agreeing to pay the cost of the rocket plus an agreed-upon amount of money to cover profits. Boeing has little incentive to keep controls on costs under such an arrangement.

NASA is thus stuck with the Space Launch System and has to hope that it can be made ready for the series of flights starting in 2021 leading to the epic next moon landing scheduled to take place in 2024. Hope, as the old saying goes, is not a plan. So the Space Launch System has become a poster child for how not to do large-scale space technology projects.

But who knows? Maybe Elon Musk and his engineers in Texas will pull out a rabbit and have a ride to the moon ready by 2024. We can only hope.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Barack Obama Boeing Elon Musk NASA NASA Space Launch System Space Shuttle program Spacecraft Spaceflight SpaceX V TECHNOLOGY

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