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SLS’s 2nd mobile launcher to cost more than $1.5 billion, 3x what was initially budgeted

SLS's two mobile launchers, costing $1 billion
NASA’s bloated SLS mobile launchers

According to an inspector general report [pdf] released today, the second mobile launcher being built by the company Bechtel to transport its SLS rocket from the assembly building to the launch site is likely going to cost more than $1.5 billion, three times what was initially budgeted, and will not be completed any earlier than the end of 2027, four years behind schedule.

Compounding Bechtel’s projected cost increases and schedule delays, an ML-2 [mobile launcher-2] project analysis provided only a 3.9 percent confidence level that the nearly $1 billion cost [twice the original budget] and October 2025 [2.5 years late] delivery estimates were accurate. NASA requires projects to develop budgets and schedules consistent with a 70 percent joint cost and schedule confidence level (JCL), meaning a 70 percent likelihood the project will finish equal to or less than the planned costs and schedule. In fact, an Independent Review Team analysis determined the project would require an additional $447 million and 27 months, for a total contract value of $1.5 billion and a launcher delivery date of December 2027—a schedule that would enable an Artemis IV launch no earlier than the end of 2028.

The first mobile launcher, shown on the left in the graphic, cost more than $1 billion and will used only three times, at most. The second, on the right, is required for all of the assigned interplanetary tasks being given to the full size version of SLS beyond those first three test flights. Without it that version of SLS cannot launch. And even if the launcher is ready by 2028, as the IG report suggests, that will be more than a decade behind schedule, and six years from now.

By that time, if SpaceX’s normal pace of development continues, Starship will be traveling routinely to and from the Moon, with trips to Mars also taking place.

The IG report is blistering in its description of Bechtel, noting that even NASA had considered its work “unsatisfactory”, which is defined by the agency as meaning the contractor has failed to meet its overall cost, schedule, and technical performance. The IG report is also blistering in its analysis of NASA’s management, which by its actions contributed to Bechtel’s failures.

In its conclusion, the report is quite pessimistic. It even recommended NASA consider terminating the contract, which the agency shows no signs of considering. Instead, in response NASA management issued Bechtel “a letter of concern” that requested “an assessment of project risks and impediments; a corrective action plan; and identification of opportunities to reduce cost, mitigate schedule, and improve efficiency in the project implementation.”

That’s telling ’em, NASA!

To sum up, NASA’s SLS program will have spent more than $2.5 billion on two mobile launchers, and have taken almost a decade to build the second. Meanwhile, its equally expensive, over-budget, and behind schedule SLS rocket will be unable to launch.

This story once again shows how much a fantasy SLS is. This rocket will never be operational. Nor will it ever make the exploration of the solar system possible. Its only purpose is to create make-work jobs on Earth in congressional districts so that elected officials can make believe they are doing something.

Meanwhile, for about $7 billion SpaceX’s Starship/Superheavy rocket is going to go from a blank sheet of paper to its first orbital flight in only three and a half three years. And it would have flown that orbital flight sooner had not the government stepped in to block it.

Any ordinary person off the street can see which is the better deal. Only our elected officials in Congress and in the White House are too stupid to see it.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Ray Van Dune

    NASA has only one alternative to SLS., and that’s SpaceX. No other manufacturer, US or otherwise, seems to have the vision to develop a super-heavy-lift space exploration system. Why throw money away on SLS when it will only be a drag on space exploration, and probably preempting NASA from supporting development of an alternative, even one now years behind SpaceX? What a fiasco!

  • pzatchok

    But we will have two heavy launch companies then and every agrees having two doing the same job is better than just one.
    Even if one is 10 times the cost of the other and has NEVER hit a deadline one time or under budget.

    Just buy two of the cheaper on time ones.

  • Ray Van Dune

    With all due respect, pzatchok, you did not address the main objection I posed…

    “Why throw money away on SLS… probably preempting NASA from supporting development of an alternative…”

    It isn’t just a matter of efficiency, IMHO.

  • Jeremy, Alabama

    My favorite line in the movie Contact is “Why build one when you can build two for twice the price?”.

  • Phill O

    The politicians are blinded by kickbacks! IMHO

  • Mitch S.

    For comparison:

    432 Park Ave, 1396ft residential tower (stuffed with bathrooms, kitchens, elevators, luxury features) in the middle of Manhattan. Took 4 years to build, cost $1.25 billion.
    OK, some of the residents say there are some issues (leaks, elevator reliability), but people live inside it.

    How bout something for twice the price of NASA’s towers (but close to their combined cost and taller than their combined height):
    The Central Park Tower. Another luxury residential tower, 1550 ft , 5 years from start to top out ( a couple more to finish the interior), $3 billion.

    Both of these built in the middle of one of the most expensive cities, largely by union labor.
    Bet some apartments even have gold plated toilets!

  • David S

    Sounds like California high speed rail…only not as costly

  • Mitch S: Brilliant. Why didn’t I think of this comparison? It puts the bankruptcy of NASA in perfect perspective.

  • Jeff Wright

    I could see SuperHeavy using that tower and crawler though. Musk once talked about larger vehicles. He may relent and have NTR upper stages made by MAF. I want Rubbia’s Americium 242 as a Mars ship. Maybe a Centaur atop Falcon Heavy. Don’t knock hydrogen.

  • Realist

    This is truly a blatant example of pork and government inefficiency. But please realize that this is all peanuts (at least an order of magnitude smaller) compared to the wasted spending and pork in the US military budget.

  • Col Beausabre

    Russia spends around 4.3 percent of its GDP on it’s military. The US about 3..7 percent. (figures from the World Bank)

    Based on the showing of Putin’s vaunted army in Ukraine, I’d say the Russian taxpayers are the ones being ripped off. The corruption in Russia is notorious – like troops in Ukraine getting sent rations from 2015

    “Of the world’s 20 major economies, Russia rates the worst on corruption.

    In 2021, the respected Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by anti-corruption body Transparency International scored Russia 29/100, alongside Liberia, Mali and Angola. This made it the 44th most corrupt nation on the index. (South Sudan was most corrupt, scoring 11/100, and Denmark the least corrupt, on 88/100.)”

    “Money supposed to be for Russia’s military capability has also been plundered. For example, defence minister Sergei Shoigu lives in an $18 million mansion – not bad for someone supposedly on a government minister’s salary.

    A typical rort has been to award contracts to companies owned by cronies, who then provide shoddy products and pocket huge profits. Food and housing in the Russian military is said to be worse than being in prison. Russian soldiers sent to invade Ukraine have been given rations years out of date.

    This has created a “Potemkin military” – all show and little substance – according to Andrey Kozyrev, Russia’s foreign minister from 1990 to 1996:

    ‘The Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernise its military. Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus. But as a military advisor you cannot report that to the President. So they reported lies to him instead.’

  • Richard M

    Or we could just look at how SpaceX has been building launch complexes.

    The Boca Chica pad – including the tank farm and other GSE – basically got underway about a year ago. And there was at least one regulatory delay when it turned out the state would not certify the big tanks for methane, requiring SpaceX to whip up a different methane tank farm, and rebuild the entire berm. It looks to be just about complete. It’s even been used already for prototype fit checks and cryo tests.

    Meanwhile at the Cape, SpaceX has teams working nearly round the clock to build a Stage Zero complex at LC-39A, which they only started a few months ago. The launch mount legs and tower base are already assembled, as is a fair part of the tank farm; and over at Roberts Road, they have pre-assembled all but one of the tower sections, including even what looks like most of the plumbling, elevator, and other systems in each one.

    And all this for a launch pad which not only launches super heavy lift rockets, but also CATCHES THEM BACK OUT OF THE AIR to relaunch them.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I wonder where the next SpaceX launch complex will be, since they will require more of them if the StarShip succeeds. Perhaps most launch towers will be at sea, but manufacturing, qualifying and initial delivery flights would probably work best from land, no?

  • pzatchok

    After the Chernobyl accident the Russians parked all the vehicles and equipment they used to close the reactor nearby and posted Danger radiation signs all over them.
    Helicopters to cars and shovels.

    Its all gone now.
    Subsequently there was a noticeable spike in the radiation levels in Russian scrap recycling yards.

    There are widespread reports of Russian military depots for vehicles having been looted to such an extent non of the vehicles are operational let alone combat capable.
    Huge amounts that were never maintained or updated.
    Modern radios and electronics taken out of those that were updated and they are now missing.

    The Russians have not updated their tank designs over the last 40 years. Since the breakup.
    They designed the t-72 with an auto-loader to make it faster to reload and cut the crew down to three from four. The problem is it jams often and in some cases even sets off the ammo. If a wrong round is loaded it has to be manually removed by hand. (they normally just fire it anyways if that happens.)
    The ammo storage is in the main body of the tank and is many cases if the tank takes even a small penetrating hit the ammo goes off and blows the turret off the vehicle.
    They have not fixed this problem in any later tank designs.
    And they have not built any later designs in any real numbers.

    The Ukraine war is turning out to prove the Russian military is a paper tiger.
    By all rights the Ukraine should not have lasted a week. But they still even threaten the Russian Navy.

  • pzatchok: Did you post this comment in the wrong thread? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with SLS’s mobile launcher.

  • Richard M

    I wonder where the next SpaceX launch complex will be, since they will require more of them if the StarShip succeeds.

    Initially, it looks like the plan is to finish the one at LC-39A, and then build at least two more at the notional “LC-49” up near County Road 402.

    But you’re right, they did buy those two oil rigs, now renamed “Phobos” and “Deimos,” and it looks they might eventually get used to carry some of the launch load. It will be interesting to see how they handle the logistics for those.

    I have the sense a lot of this is still in flux.

  • pzatchok

    I think I did.

    Feel free to delete it if you want.

  • Col Beausabre

    pzatchok. I hope Bob will forgive me, but as an old Armor officer, I’d like to comment. The Russians do have the T-14 Armata, which is new, but only exists in risible numbers as they can’t afford them and they rely on embargoed Western electronics and other parts. from the West. This vaunted “great” vehicle has not shown up in Ukraine, where you would think they would want their best weapons and, if nothing else, to prove the design in combat. So, it looks like it’s great for parades but not so great for fighting. You are right about the T-72 and T-90, their “carousel” loading system has proved to be a major design flaw, leading to the “jack in the box tank” – the ammunition detonates and the turret gets blown off. Even when that doesn’t occur, they are death traps. Here’s a T-72 brewing up in Syria. The survivor was dismounted on the opposite side of the vehicle.

    and a combat loaded T-72 being killed by a TOW-2B in a test.

    I’d say the Russians may have finally caught up with the combat proven Abrams and its NATO equivalents, Leo 2, Leclerc and Challenger with the T-14. The US is working on its next heavy combat vehicle, with a goal of Initial Operational Capability of 2035 but it may well be autonomous, without a crew on board and controlled remotely.

  • pzatchok: You should repost in the right thread. If you do, then I’ll delete.

  • Col Beausabre: I really don’t want these off topic discussions to expand. Repost in the right threat, and quote pzatchok there.

    I will then delete both off topic comments

  • Col Beausabre

    Done, Thanks, Bob

  • Edward

    We shouldn’t be too worried too soon about launch towers and rapid turnaround. The first tower in Boca Chica gave a number of lessons learned that have clearly been applied to this first tower at Kennedy. This Kennedy tower will present its own lessons, too. In the meantime, Starship will not need too much rapid turnaround until its first lunar or interplanetary mission, when refueling will be necessary. This is a few years off, and it gives them plenty of flights to learn what they need to know.

    Should we be upset that NASA is spending so much on the mobile launchers? Yes. They are on their second generation of employees, and they should have project management down, by now. I hate to say it, but if NASA management in the 1960s were like it is today, then it is no wonder people think that the lunar landings were a hoax. On the other hand, such a hoax would have taken even better management, too, in order to pull it off without flubbing something simple, important, and obvious.

    Is NASA learning any lessons from its experiences with SLS? Why is it that in the 1960s NASA could make a rocket from scratch and land people on the Moon in just over seven years but in the 21st century (think of this as being the future) NASA can’t even do it in 15 years when starting with most of the rocket parts that it needs?

    What the hell has Congress done to NASA in the past half century?

    Welcome to Obama’s America, land of the formerly competent.

  • Call Me Ishmael

    “… but in the 21st century (think of this as being the future) NASA can’t even do it in 15 years …”

    Because in the 21st century that isn’t the mission; it’s only the pretext. The mission is to dine indefinitely at the government trough.

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