Boeing has been building the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket for the better part of this decade, and the process has not always gone smoothly, with significant overruns and multiyear delays. A new report from NASA’s inspector general makes clear just how bad the development process has gone, laying the blame mostly at the feet of Boeing.
“We found Boeing’s poor performance is the main reason for the significant cost increases and schedule delays to developing the SLS core stage,” the report, signed by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, states. “Specifically, the project’s cost and schedule issues stem primarily from management, technical, and infrastructure issues directly related to Boeing’s performance.”
As of August 2018, the report says, NASA has spent a total of $11.9 billion on the SLS. Even so, the rocket’s critical core stage will be delivered more than three years later than initially planned—at double the anticipated cost. 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.
The report found that NASA will need to spend an additional $1.2 billion, on top of its existing $6.2 billion contract for the core stages of the first two SLS rockets, to reach a maiden launch date of June 2020. NASA originally planned to launch the SLS rocket on its maiden flight in November 2017.
However, given all of the development problems that the SLS rocket has seen, the report does not believe a mid-2020 date is likely either. “In light of the project’s development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020,” the report states.
There are other troubling hints about schedule in this new report, too. One concerns facilities at Stennis Space Center in Southern Mississippi, where NASA will conduct a “green run” test of the core stage of the SLS rocket. This is a critical test that will involve a full-scale firing of the rocket’s core stage—four main engines along with liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel tanks—for a simulated launch and ascent into space.
The report found that Boeing’s development of “command and control” hardware and software needed to conduct this test is already 18 months behind a schedule established in 2016. This means the Stennis facility won’t be ready to accommodate a green run test until at least May 2019, with further delays possible.
This is critical, because often the most serious engineering problems are uncovered during the phase when key rocket components are integrated and tested. The delay in green-run testing means that any problems that crop up during that phase of development will only push the maiden launch of the SLS further into the future.
There is a rather remarkable section of the report that discusses the reasons for these delays. Boeing evidently told the inspector general that initial delays for SLS development were caused by “insufficient funding.” 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. “By the end of FY 2015, the company had received $706 million, only $53 million less than requested for its work to build two core stages,” the report states. “In addition, due to a congressional ‘plus-up’ the following year, Boeing received approximately $200 million more than what NASA estimated was needed to meet the original 2017 launch schedule. Further, in May 2016 NASA added almost $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. Boeing officials did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
Implications of this
Another thrust of the report is that NASA has improperly awarded tens of millions of dollars to Boeing for performance fees the company has not earned. “We question nearly $64 million in award fees provided to Boeing since 2012 for the ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’ performance ratings it received while the SLS Program was experiencing substantial cost increases, technical issues, and schedule delays,” the report states.
In his response to the new report, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, essentially shrugs off the criticism by saying building big rockets is hard work.
“The SLS is the largest launch system in the history of space flight,” Gerstenmaier’s response states. “The design, development, manufacturing, test, and operations of the system are highly complex and represent a national investment in a long-term commitment to deep space exploration.”
This may be true. But it seems an increasingly difficult sell after SpaceX developed the not-quite-as-large-or-complex Falcon Heavy rocket for $500 million. It is not clear what will happen next. In the past, Congress has largely ignored criticism of the SLS rocket, even from official sources. After all, the vehicle has 1,100 contractors in 43 states, covering a lot of legislative districts.
However, there are a few critics close to the White House who have been whispering concerns and criticisms about the big, expensive rocket to Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the National Space Council. To be clear, the vice president has been publicly supportive of the SLS rocket to date. But this report will at the very least add fuel to the fire of the criticisms he is hearing.