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.

NASA runs out of money for building second SLS mobile launcher

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

NASA has had to halt construction of the second mobile launcher platform for its SLS rocket because the agency has run out of money.

Overall, NASA spent almost a billion dollars on the first launcher (to be used only three times), and now has budgeted almost a half billion dollars for the second.

That’s about $1.4 billion, and apparently it is not enough.

The second Mobile Launcher (ML-2) has a cost estimate of $450 million. However, like ML-1, that cost is likely to rise over time based on the challenges involving ML-1, which ranged from being overweight to suffering from a slight lean. Both of these issues have since been resolved via engineering solutions. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate more NASA incompetence. The first platform was designed and built badly, being too heavy for its purposes while also improperly tilting sideways The agency had to spend a lot of money and time fixing these problems.

Meanwhile, SpaceX moves its Starship spaceship and Superheavy booster about in Boca Chica using simple truck movers that probably cost the company no more than a million dollars each, if that. And they became operational quickly, and are now in use.