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.
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NASA’s second SLS mobile launch tower now behind schedule

Par for the course: According to one member of NASA’s safety panel, the contractor building NASA’s second SLS launch tower, is having performance problems and is already behind schedule.

On Thursday, during a meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, one of its members provided an update on Mobile Launcher-2. George Nield, an engineer and scientist who previously led commercial space transportation for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the 90-percent design, review, and fabrication drawings for the large structure are behind schedule. These are the engineering drawings that should closely represent the final design and inform a construction schedule and logistics plan.

“Mobile Launcher-2 has encountered some challenges,” Nield said. “The selected contractor, Bechtel, has experienced some performance issues associated with underestimating the complexity of the project and some supplier related issues, as well as COVID.”

Note that NASA spent about $1 billion on the first tower, to be used only three times, at most. Its contract with Bechtel says the second tower will cost $383 million, but no one expects that number to be met.

Assuming Bechtel does not go over budget (hah!), NASA will have spent $1.4 billion on SLS’s launch towers, one of which will be used two or three times and then abandoned. That’s three times the cost of what SpaceX spent developing Falcon Heavy, and about a third the total development cost of Starship/Superheavy, including its planned launchpads in both Boca Chica and Florida.