NASA has been without its own launch vehicle since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. Since then, the agency has been moving full-speed ahead with the Space Launch System (SLS). Well, it’s been trying. Delays and cost overruns have plagued the SLS, and a new report lays the blame at the feet of NASA’s primary SLS contractor: Boeing.
The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built when it finally enters service, with the ability to lift a whopping 95 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. It will also be able to send missions to Mars and the outer solar system with ease. It mates with the Orion crew and service module for human-crewed flights as well. Development of the expendable rocket has been slow and expensive. NASA wanted to get the SLS in the air by late 2017 at a cost of $5-7 billion. However, the vehicle still isn’t ready for launch, and the price has already ballooned to $11.9 billion.
NASA’s Inspector General Paul Martin has issued a scathing report that blames Boeing for the bulk of the delay. According to the report, Boeing’s “management, technical, and infrastructure issues” have all contributed to the slowdown. The report cites several ongoing issues, including preparations for a planned “green run,” or full-scale ground fire test of the rocket. Boeing is apparently 18 months behind schedule developing the command and control software to conduct the test.
Martin estimates that NASA will need to spend at least $1.2 billion more in order to fund completion of the first two SLS core rockets. The agency’s current estimate for the first SLS launch is June 2020, but the report questions if that’s even feasible under current conditions. Boeing told the inspector that the delays are due to underfunding of the SLS.
The IG report and NASA officials steadfastly reject that claim, pointing out Boeing received $706 million (only $53 million less) for the SLS in 2015. The next year, it for $200 million more than NASA believed it needed thanks to congressional action. In May 2016, NASA even added another $1 billion to the contract value. NASA may also have incorrectly awarded Boeing performance bonuses totaling $64 million when the program was running behind schedule and over budget.
Boeing, of course, denies that it’s at fault for the delays. It says building a new rocket on this scale is new ground, and the IG report doesn’t capture the true state of the project. At least publicly, NASA administration agrees with Boeing. Building the SLS is hard, and it’s not surprising there have been delays. I would not be surprised if NASA officials are privately very steamed at Boeing.