An independent report investigating the development of NASA’s new moon rocket has found significant cost overruns and delays that could hurt the agency’s plans to get astronauts back to the moon.
Development of the Space Launch System (SLS) began in November 2011. It had a successful test flight in November 2022, six years after its first debut launch in late 2016. The SLS megarocket is intended to return humans to Moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program, but increases in costs related to contracts awarded to Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman for SLS propulsion systems could threaten that goal.
That is according to a 50 page report by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin released by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) on May 25. In all, the four contracts for the rocket’s propellant and engine were initially projected to cost $7 billion over a span of 14 years, but are now projected to cost at least $13.1 billion over nearly 25 years.
Related: NASA’s Artemis Program: Everything you need to know
“NASA continues to experience significant range growth, cost increases, and schedule delays from its RS-25 engine and booster contracts, resulting in approximately $6 billion in cost increases and more than 6 years in schedule delays above original NASA projections,” the report found.
These significant increases were caused by a variety of longstanding interrelated management issues that affected both the SLS development drive and the broader Artemis program, the report notes, including “some of which represent potential requirement violations.” federal contracting.”
The use of legacy RS-25 engines and boosters from the Space Shuttle and Constellation programs for the new SLS rocket was intended to result in significant cost and schedule savings in the development of new systems. But the “complexity of developing, upgrading, and integrating new systems alongside heritage components turned out to be much greater than anticipated,” according to the report.
To remedy this, the report makes a number of recommendations to NASA management to increase the transparency, accountability, and affordability of SLS engine and booster contracts, including changing awards from “cost plus” to a structure of fixed price contract. However, the assessment still finds the enormous cost of SLS unwieldy for NASA and detrimental to its long-term “Moon to Mars” plans.
“Without increased attention to these important safeguards, NASA and its contracts will continue to exceed planned cost and schedule, resulting in reduced funding availability, launch delays, and the erosion of public confidence in the ability of the Agency to responsibly spend taxpayer money and meet mission goals and objectives, including the safe return of humans to the moon and then to Mars.”
The report comes at a time of change and change within the space sector. Several private space companies developing space propulsion and rocket systems sprang up during the time of SLS development, such as SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s lunar lander, potentially providing a much more cost-effective means of returning to the moon.
NASA’s next mission in the Artemis Program, Artemis 2, is scheduled to send a crew of four astronauts on a round-trip around the moon in 2024. Artemis 3, in which humans will land on the lunar surface for the first time in over 50 years, it will be released no earlier than 2025, if all goes to plan.
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