More delays likely for over budget Mars rocket SLS — NASA report

Christopher Davidson
October 13, 2018

"To its credit, the SLS program has taken positive steps to address management and procurement issues related to the Boeing Stages contract, including making key leadership changes; requesting reviews of Boeing's management, financial, and estimating systems; adding routine, in-depth performance reviews; and changing the procurement process to improve internal controls", the auditors say. While taxpayer-funded cost overruns are de riguer when talking about the USA military industrial complex, the massive aerospace company is also two years behind schedule, a gap that could widen further according to an audit by NASA's inspector general.

A report by NASA's inspector general October 10 criticized both NASA and Boeing for delays and cost overruns in the development of a key component of the Space Launch System, and warned of more delays and overruns to come.

"Boeing's cost and schedule challenges are likely to worsen, given that the SLS has yet to undergo its "Green Run Test" - a major milestone that integrates and tests the Core Stage components", NASA said in a summary of the report. "NASA continues to carefully monitor SLS performance as the teams make significant progress on final assembly, outfitting and joining of the five major structural pieces of the SLS core stage at the agency's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for the first flight". Overall, there are a number of top-line findings in this report, which cast a mostly if not completely negative light on Boeing and, to a lesser extent, NASA and its most expensive spaceflight project.

Boeing received a contract from NASA in June 2014 valued at almost $4.2 billion to build the first two SLS core stages.

NASA is counting on the two-stage SLS to launch astronauts toward deep-space destinations such as the moon and Mars.

An aide assembles a model of NASA's Space Launch System rocket as the stage is set for U.S. President Donald Trump to deliver remarks at a meeting of the National Space Council at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 18, 2018.

In addition, the hardware and software required for core-stage testing is two years behind schedule.

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The Four RS-25 Engines that will Power SLS. Considering the SLS Program's cost overages and schedule delays, we question almost $64 million of the award fees already provided to Boeing. As Bloomberg notes, cost overruns seem to be the standard when talking about tax-payer funded projects for the country's military-industrial complex.

There is a rather remarkable section of the report that discusses the reasons for these delays. Boeing, of course, denies that it's at fault for the delays. Notably, Boeing said the SLS contract was underfunded for 2015, and therefore it could not maintain its delivery schedule for the first two core stages.

The inspector general appeared to be having none of this, however. "Further, in May 2016 NASA added nearly $1 billion in additional contract value-bringing the total contract value to $5.2 billion-with only minimal changes in the scope of work".

NASA officials told the inspector general that they did not believe the schedule slippage could be explained by a lack of adequate funding.

In response to a query from Ars, Boeing issued the following statement: "An unprecedented rocket program has inherent challenges; developing the first unit of a system that will safely carry humans into space, even more so". In a December 2017 interview with CNBC's Jim Cramer, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg gave a brief outline of the SLS mission: "We're working on that next generation rocket right now with our NASA customers called 'Space Launch System, '" Muilenburg said. Specifically, in the six evaluation periods since 2012 in which NASA provided ratings, Agency officials deemed Boeing's performance "excellent" in three and "very good" in three other periods, resulting in payment of $323 million or 90 percent of the available award and incentive fees.

NASA's Inspector General said in an audit that "management, technical and infrastructure issues driven by Boeing's poor performance" had led to delays and cost overruns, raising questions about the future launch timetable. Since that time, Boeing was contracted to build the massive SLS, the most powerful rocket ever built. This effort represents the largest development of space flight capabilities NASA has attempted since the first Space Shuttle was produced more than 37 years ago.

This may be true. It is not clear what will happen next. After all, the vehicle has 1,100 contractors in 43 states, covering a lot of legislative districts. But this report will at the very least add fuel to the fire of the criticisms he is hearing.

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