New inspector general report slams NASA’s SLS management


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A new report [pdf] by NASA’s inspector general released today harshly slams the management of NASA for the never-ending cost overruns and scheduling delays that have plagued the agency’s effort to build and launch the Space Launch System (SLS).

From the report’s introduction:

Based on our review of SLS Program cost reporting, we found that the Program exceeded its Agency Baseline Commitment (ABC)—that is, the cost and schedule baselines committed to Congress against which a program is measured—by at least 33 percent at the end of fiscal year 2019, a figure that could reach 43 percent or higher if additional delays push the launch date for Artemis I beyond November 2020.

… [T]he SLS Program now projects the Artemis I launch will be delayed to at least spring 2021 or later. Further, we found NASA’s ABC cost reporting only tracks Artemis I-related activities and not total SLS Program costs. Overall, by the end of fiscal year 2020, NASA will have spent more than $17 billion on the SLS Program—including almost $6 billion not tracked or reported as part of the ABC.

The graph below, taken from page 45 of the report, illustrates the management failures here quite starkly.

The ballooning cost and endless delays of NASA's SLS rocket

The original proposal in 2011 predicted a 2017 launch for $9.5 billion. At this moment, the first launch won’t happen before March 2021, and its total budget has doubled to $18.3 billion.

These numbers only track the cost for the first launch and not the entire SLS program, and also exclude the money NASA spent on Constellation, the first iteration of this rocket. Thus, the total cost is much higher. Based on Congressional appropriations, Constellation cost $5 billion (see page 10 of Capitalism in Space). Adding in the rest of the program’s cost, estimated above as about $6 billion, the entire cost to the taxpayer for this boondoggle will easily exceed $29 billion.

Want to bet the number will top $30 billion before we are done?

To gain some perspective on how badly NASA has managed SLS, consider the development costs I quoted earlier today for both SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy ($500 million) and Starship/Super Heavy ($1.83 billion). Falcon Heavy for example took only seven years to conceive and launch, has a launch capability only a third less than the rocket to be used on Artemis 1, and has already completed three commercial launches. As for Starship/Super Heavy, SpaceX expects to build this completely reusable rocket, comparable to SLS, for less than a tenth the cost, and in about half the time.

Worse, none of the budget numbers for SLS above include the cost for any additional SLS missions. If you think the per launch cost for those future SLS missions will be reasonable after these management failures, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I promise I can get you for a song.

Any sane customer looking for a heavy lift rocket for future deep space missions, either manned or unmanned, would have no trouble choosing SpaceX over NASA’s SLS. Unfortunately, the buyers here are our elected legislators in Congress. They can’t do math very well, and are thus still married to SLS.

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11 comments

  • Call Me Ishmael

    “They can’t do math very well…”

    Actually they can do math just fine; they’re just not calculating the same things as we are.

  • Call Me Ishmael: What Congress critters do is not math, no matter what their calculations.

  • Call Me Ishmael

    “What Congress critters do is not math”

    I dunno. “How many votes will this buy me?” has non-mathematical components, to be sure, but there is still some arithmetic involved.

  • mivenho

    A stack of one dollar bills is about 1200 miles. From that perspective, SLS has already reached orbit.

  • sippin_bourbon

    But Constellation was going to be too expensive?

  • mivenho

    Oops! correction to my previous post:

    A stack of 18 billion one-dollar bills is about 1200 miles high. From that perspective, SLS has finally reached orbit.

  • Foxbat

    My experience working for the Feds leads me to this prediction.

    A report like this will result in volumes more of procurement regulations to be administered by bus loads of new bureaucrats (non of which engineers ) which will move decisions farther away from the knowledgeable technical people. It will result in only using current vendors because it becomes more difficult to qualify new suppliers. And it will take much more time for a project which will escalate the costs and sap the will of those trying to achieve. Atlas Shrugged has never seemed more accurate.

  • sippin_bourbon

    So my question above was only partly rhetorical. Does anyone have a good link to point me too ( not wikipedia) as to why Constellation was a bad program?

    Additional question. Are they planning to make new RS-25 engines? As in understand, there are 4 per SLS. They will run out of them. I count 9 in existence . This is a limiting factor.

  • wayne

    George Harrison –
    “Got My Mind Set On You”
    2004
    https://youtu.be/_71w4UA2Oxo
    3:51

    “But, it’s gonna take money.
    A whole lot of spending money.
    It’s gonna take plenty of money,
    To do it right, child.”

  • Edward

    sippin_bourbon asked: “Does anyone have a good link to point me too ( not wikipedia) as to why Constellation was a bad program?

    Some people think that Obama cancelled Constellation and the Moon mission because it was “not invented here.” He did not want to be the president who fulfilled a major mission for Bush.

    https://www.newser.com/story/86164/obama-says-of-the-moon-been-there-done-that.html

    But the moon is old news, and it’s time to think bigger. “We’ve been there before,” [Obama] said at Kennedy Space Center, unswayed by critics who say his vision will bring an end to manned spaceflights.

    However, there were some technical issues that needed to be dealt with. These came because they added an additional segment to the SRB stack from the Space Shuttle.

    https://blogs.nasa.gov/Ares_I-X/tag/vibration/

    Before 70 seconds and after 90 seconds the vibration levels are fine, but for those 20 seconds we haven’t fully verified that we can still steer the rocket with the TVC or send the signal to self-destruct the rocket and end the flight with the FTS if it veers away from its projected path.

    To help explain:

    The vibration that is produced by the burning of the solid rocket propellant in the first stage booster is called thrust oscillation. These vibrations — or oscillations — come in the form of waves, which travel up and down the length of the rocket like a musical note through an organ pipe. One of the biggest challenges in any rocket design is developing avionics (aviation electronics) that can function in this vibrating environment.

    As an additional note: another challenge is to prevent too much vibration from being in the range of the natural frequency of a human being, roughly 8Hz to 80Hz. Internal organs tend to have a frequency of around 20 to 25Hz, so they might pound against each other until they become jelly, if the vibrations are too much at this frequency. The head has another frequency, the spine another, etc. It is all part of rocket science.

  • Lee S

    Good stuff Edward! ( I somehow missed this thread…)… Astronauts turning to jelly is a bad thing however you look at it! ( And also something I had never concidered!)
    Since joining the tight knit community that is the Behind the black readership, I have learned that NASA really is a jobs program… In some ways this is not a bad thing… You keep the talent within the US, and within government, but it is heartbreaking even for this European when you consider what could be achieved with its budget for manned spaceflight with better management oversight.
    On the bright side, I have no doubt that Trump will win another term, and although the de-funding of current missions is concerning, he seems to have a focus on specific goals, and the will to achieve them that has been missing from your last few presidents. Hopefully his next 4 years will allow him to follow thru on said goals.
    ( Speaking of goals, there will be non in the UK this weekend…. All football… Sorry! Soccer, has been cancelled…. a sure sign poop just got real!)

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