Audit of SLS predicts more cost overruns and delays

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Ever get a feeling of deja vu? A report by NASA’s inspector general yesterday slammed NASA and Boeing for their management of the SLS program, noting that the first unmanned launch will likely be delayed further and the cost for the program will go up another $4 billion.

The much-anticipated premiere of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket will likely see yet another push to the right, this time beyond mid-2020, as the program faces billions in cost overruns, according to a scathing audit released Wednesday by the agency’s Office of Inspector General.

Originally slated to launch from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39B in December 2017, a 322-foot-tall version of the rocket known as SLS Block 1 will likely still be unprepared for a liftoff on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 by June 2020, auditors said. Even if teams could technically meet that deadline, NASA would need to offer Boeing, the contractor building the first two core stages, an infusion of $1.2 billion: $800 million to secure first stage delivery to KSC by December 2019 and an additional $400 million to make sure EM-1 launches by June 2020.

“Consequently, 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,” a portion of the 50-page report reads.

The report [pdf] states that Boeing’s budget will have to double to $8 billion to meet these demands. In truth, SLS has cost the taxpayers a lot more than that, probably in the range in excess of $30 billion, if you add up all the yearly appropriations from Congress specifically applied to this rocket project and extend them through the first manned launch, now probably not taking place prior to 2024. (See my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, to see the breakdown.)

If this audit is correct, and I see no reason not to believe it, it will have taken the modern NASA more than twenty years to build and launch a single manned capsule, with a total cost of over $60 billion.

SpaceX built Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, Dragon cargo, and Dragon manned in about half that time, for a cost of about $2 billion. Falcon Heavy alone cost $500 million, and took only seven years.

From whom would you buy the product?



  • wodun

    Makes you wonder why NASA awarded commercial crew to Boeing rather than Sierra Nevada.

    Originally slated to launch from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39B in December 2017, a 322-foot-tall version of the rocket known as SLS Block 1

    Someone should do a cartoon where the stack of money spent on SLS/Orion is placed on the launch pad with flames licking the bottom and another one like the rocket size comparisons where the in scale stack of money is shown next to SLS.

  • mkent

    Makes you wonder why NASA awarded commercial crew to Boeing rather than Sierra Nevada.

    No need to wonder. Sierra Nevada was running five years late on their CCiCap contract.

  • Richard Malcolm

    And what’s more, Falcon Heavy development was pretty slow rolled until its last few years, because most of SpaceX’s engineers were still fine tuning the Falcon 9 for the Block 6 endgame (and yes, they also had a crew vehicle under development).

    Amazing what you can do when you don’t have any politicians to answer to.

  • Richard Malcolm: Excellent point. Falcon Heavy’s launch was also delayed because of the 2016 launchpad failure, a delay having nothing to do with the rocket’s development.

  • “Falcon Heavy alone cost $500 million . . ”

    That’s in the neighborhood of a single Shuttle mission. Things that make you go ‘Hmmm’.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Shuttle missions actually cost, on average, somewhere north of $1.5 billion each. That includes a pro rata share of the development costs. The half billion figure for Falcon Heavy is mostly the development costs.

  • Edward

    Dick Eagleson’s number comes from the Shuttle program costing a total of around $200 billion by the time it ended, and there being 135 flights.

    Blair Ivey’s number comes from the annual Shuttle budget being about $3 billion and there being about six flights per year.

    I used to use Blair’s number until the program ended, when I learned the facts that generate Dick’s number.

  • wodun

    That is the perfect example of how NASA can’t be a business and how government distorts costs in relation to making decisions.

    Are the historical costs of shuttle development a sunk cost that shouldn’t be used for decision making going forward? Would a business assign these costs to units to recoup the investment? But then, how does that apply to a NASA which doesn’t generate revenue?

    Both the marginal cost and the shared total cost are important numbers but how those numbers are used to make decisions are more important.

    The way government does things muddles decision making and trying to compare the way government does something with how private enterprise does is often not fair because the two groups have different goals and justifications for how money is spent and how money is gathered. Its like comparing scores in soccer and football. Its almost meaningless because two different games are being played.

    The best thing about a COTS like approach in paying for services is that it strips away a lot of the distortions that cause government to make bad decisions.

    This is also why single customer healthcare is such a horrible idea and we should be working to reduce government’s and insurance companies’ roles in running the healthcare industry.

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