GAO: More delays and cost overruns for SLS/Orion

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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.

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Surprise, surprise! A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that NASA’s SLS and Orion programs are even more behind schedule and over budget than NASA has been revealing.

Instead of launching in 2020, the Artemis-1 mission that will see a Space Launch System rocket boost an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon will instead launch as late as June 2021, the GAO report finds. NASA also appears to have been obscuring the true cost of its development programs, particularly with the large SLS rocket, which has Boeing as its prime contractor.

“While NASA acknowledges about $1 billion in cost growth for the SLS program, it is understated,” the report found. “This is because NASA shifted some planned SLS scope to future missions but did not reduce the program’s cost baseline accordingly. When GAO reduced the baseline to account for the reduced scope, the cost growth is about $1.8 billion.”

You can read the full report here [pdf].

The GAO June 2021 launch date will mean that the first manned mission using Orion/SLS cannot happen before 2024. This also means that NASA will take 20 years to get off one manned mission with this project.

There’s more. NASA awarded both Boeing and Lockheed Martin significant award fees totaling almost a quarter of a billion dollars, despite their inability to meet any cost and scheduling targets.

The conclusion of the report is quite damning:

NASA…has been unable to achieve agreed-to cost and schedule performance. NASA acknowledges that future delays to the June 2020 launch date are likely, but the agency’s approach in estimating cost growth for the SLS and Orion programs is misleading. And it does not provide decision makers, including the Administrator, complete cost data with which to assess whether Congress needs to be notified of a cost increase, pursuant to law. By not using a similar set of assumptions regarding what costs are included in the SLS baseline and updated SLS cost estimates, NASA is underreporting the magnitude of the program’s cost growth. Similarly, NASA is underreporting the Orion program’s cost performance by measuring cost growth to an earlier-than-agreed-to schedule date. As a result, Congress and the public continue to accept further delays to the launch of the first mission without a clear understanding of the costs associated with those delays. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted text is to emphasize NASA’s dishonesty here. This program has been badly managed and out of control for the better part of the last decade, and NASA, rather than fix it, has been aggressively hiding this fact in every way it can,

If the GAO is right, SLS/Orion is finally in very serious political trouble. The Trump administration has made it clear that it wants it to meet that June 2020 launch date, and if it fails the administration will then look to private launch providers to get the job done.


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One comment

  • Edward

    From the article: “In its response to the report, NASA said government investigators had failed to take into account the complexity of its undertaking to build a very large rocket and a deep-space capsule.

    It isn’t as though NASA has ever made a Moon rocket before. Well, it has, but the last time it took them a whole six years to launch the first test launch. Well, that’s a few years faster than this rocket, but the point is that this time they are using entirely existing technology and some existing hardware, whereas that first time they had to invent new technologies as they went.

    So much for the rocket, let’s compare capsules. The Dragon capsule has been under development for about ten years, although to be fair to SpaceX, the design was in two phases one for the now-operational cargo version and one for the manned version, so development time is about half what has been used on Orion, and both are currently in similar positions, each having completed an unmanned test flight.

    Huh. I think I didn’t defend NASA quite as well as I had intended.

    In the meantime, it looks like SLS is still suffering a year-for-year schedule slip. At this rate, it will never be completed.

    From the article: ““The GAO report repeatedly projects the worst-case schedule outcome,” Gerstenmaier wrote in a letter to the GAO.

    Given NASA’s track record of year-for-year schedule slips on this project, the GAO may be optimistic in using the worst-case outcomes. Somehow, the reality seems to end up being even worse.

    On the positive side, I learned that Lockheed Martin will build the service modules after the sole European Service Module is expended on EM-1. From the report: “NASA noted that Lockheed Martin was not able to maintain its schedule for the crew service module and that the contractor’s schedule performance had decreased significantly over the previous year.” Well, maybe this is not so positive after all.

    From the report: “GAO has designated NASA’s management of acquisitions as a high-risk area for almost three decades.

    This looks like a chronic problem. No wonder so many of us long for commercialization of space. The world’s governments are doing a terrible job at great expense.

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