More Cost Overruns Realistically Means Space Launch System Requires Congress to Reauthorize

There are continuing production and testing problems for the Space Launch System, Orion and ground systems. There are more delays and budget overruns. If these delays and cost overruns are realistically assessed then it will surpass the 30% overrun level that would force NASA to go to the US Congress for re-authorization.

Nextbigfuture has been saying for years that the SLS needs to be canceled. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy can do almost everything that the first version of SLS can do. Falcon Heavy can launch the EM-1 mission. The SpaceX Super Heavy Starship could be flying to orbit in 2020 and will very likely beat the SLS to its first launch by 2021. The SpaceX Super Heavy Starship will be able to fully reusable launch 100 tons.

SLS will cost over a billion per launch and is using side booster and some other technology from the 1980s space shuttle system.

More Delays and a New $1.8 Billion Cost Overrun

In November 2018, within one year of announcing an up to 19-month delay for the three programs— the Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle, the Orion spacecraft, and supporting ground systems—NASA senior leaders acknowledged the revised date of June 2020 is unlikely. Any issues uncovered during planned integration and testing may push the launch date as late as June 2021. NASA acknowledges about $1 billion in cost growth for the SLS program, it is understated. 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.

NASA paid over $200 million in award fees from 2014-2018 related to contractor performance on the SLS stages and Orion spacecraft contracts. But the programs continue to fall behind schedule and overrun costs.

The first Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) of the SLS vehicle is to launch an uncrewed Orion to a distant orbit some 70,000 kilometers beyond the Moon. All three programs—SLS, Orion, and EGS—must be ready on or before the EM-1 launch readiness date to support this integrated test flight. Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) will be a 10- to 14-day crewed flight with up to four astronauts that will orbit the moon and return to Earth to demonstrate the baseline Orion vehicle capability.

Realistic Numbers for SLS and Orion Mean +30% Overrun Will Happen and Will Need New Reauthorization from Congress

When the NASA Administrator determines that development cost growth is likely to exceed the development cost estimate by 15 percent or more, or a program milestone is likely to be delayed from the baseline’s date by 6 months or more, NASA must submit a report to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate. Should a program exceed its development cost baseline by more than 30 percent, the program must be reauthorized by the Congress and rebaselined in order for the contractor to continue work beyond a specified time frame. NASA tied the SLS and EGS program cost and schedule baselines to the uncrewed EM-1 mission and the Orion program’s cost and schedule baselines to EM-2.

NASA’s estimates for the SLS program indicate 14.7 percent cost growth as of fourth quarter fiscal year 2018, but our analysis shows that number increases to 29.0 percent when accounting for costs that NASA shifted to future missions. Further, in summer 2018, NASA reported a 5.6 percent cost growth for the Orion program. However, this reported cost growth is associated with a program target launch date that is 7 months earlier than its agency baseline commitment launch date. If the Orion program executes to the launch date established in its agency baseline commitment, costs will increase further.

Written By Brian Wang

36 thoughts on “More Cost Overruns Realistically Means Space Launch System Requires Congress to Reauthorize”

  1. It could, the skills could be relearned, but why would it want to? The Saturn rockets were great in their day, but are now cost ineffective. The SLS will never be great.

  2. The Lada might have sucked, but had it acquired the company, VW could have used the factory building, and much of the factory’s capital equipment to build much better cars, at a profit. That’s what the term “creative destruction means in economic parlance. Inefficient businesses are bought out by, or go bankrupt, and are auctioned off to more efficient operators that can operate more profitably.

  3. 50 years later and NASA can’t even build a Saturn V with billions of dollars to work with …….. Sad.

  4. SuperHeavy/Starship? Not gonna happen. There’s no way to put an Orion on the front of Starship and still get Starship back for re-use, and you can’t put the Orion in the payload bay, because there’s no pad or launch abort capability.

    As for Falcon Heavy, it can get Orion to LEO easily, but FH, even fully expended, doesn’t have the performance to put a 26 t Orion into TLI. It does have the performance to take an Orion and ICPS (the SLS temporary second stage) to LEO, where the ICPS could take the Orion to TLI, but there are several problems:

    1) They’d have to crew-rate the FH, which is a lot of testing and paperwork at the very least.

    2) Orion has to be stacked in a vertical position. All current FH (and F9) payloads are stacked horizontally.

    3) The ICPS would need to be fueled on the pad with LH2 and LOX, and the current FH service structure doesn’t support that.

    4) The ICPS+Orion+LAS system is about 22 m longer than the current FH payload fairing. It’ll change the aerodynamics at the very least, and likely will require making the FH S2 and center core structurally stiffer.

    5) The tall stack would also require a higher crew access arm.

    So there isn’t a slam-dunk to be had here.

  5. NASA has changed since the old days. At one time there were risk takers in it but it has become more bureaucratic now a days. The people who once ran it have either died or retired. I think there needs to more people working on new ideas in rocketry like nuclear rockets, better ion drives, and new ideas for missions to moon, mars and Europa and ways to send probes to the closer stars. SpaceX and Blue Origin are the best ones to use for rockets they are the cheaper routes to space these days, not SLS and if NASA comes up with some new ideas for rockets like ion drives or nuclear rockets then maybe SpaceX or Blue Origin could develop the these ideas for practical use.

  6. Congress mandated that the SLS use as much existing Shuttle hardware as possible (SRBs, RS-25 engines, etc). Both launch systems are hideously expensive, and SLS is even worse since on each SLS launch you are tossing away 4 re-usable Space Shuttle Main Engines. Utterly stupid.

  7. A rocket that costs $1 billion per flight

    So, you’re saying SLS is a big savings over the space shuttle?

  8. This is like saying that you support SLS because it uses flat-head screws instead of phillips-heads. The propellant is just a tool to fit the most mission profiles you expect your vehicle to fly. F9 and FH use kerolox because it’s dense, educes dry mass, and at the time SpaceX only wanted to support one type of engine. Starship uses methalox because it’s a good compromise between heavy launch and deep space profiles, and because it doesn’t take a lot of power to make methane on Mars. If it turns out that most of the money is in cis-lunar, using lunar water, I’m sure they’ll switch over to hydrolox. There’s no magic here.

  9. Kinda depends on what “this” the private sector is better at. SpaceX is successful because launching medium stuff is profitable. It remains to be seen whether launching super-heavy stuff will be profitable or not.

    Governments are good at promoting stuff that will eventually be profitable, but where the investment is still too big, or the return too long, to attract private enterprises. I strongly suspect that that’s an excellent description of the lunar program for the next ten years or so.

    That said, looking at SLS versus anything that anybody has done and it’ll be a good argument for not letting Boeing or MSFC near another launcher for a long, long time.

  10. Senator Shelby of Alabama will never let the SLS be cancelled. That project is 50,000 good paying jobs in a state that only has 100,000 good jobs. So you can stop asking why NASA doesn’t go with SpaceX, it ain’t gonna happen as long as Shelby has the purse strings. He could literally cut NASAs budget in half.

  11. “LH2” is a stupid reason to support a rocket program that costs $15 billion dollars before it ever flies, and even then will cost $1 billion more per flight, and could not fly more than once a year.

    If you like LH2, support a program that is more sensible such as the Blue Origin New Glenn.

  12. A rocket that costs $1 billion per flight and requires 1 whole year to build a new one each time you want to fly one isn’t really “independent access to space.”

    There is one U.S. Government organization for which assured access to space is Vital– The Department of Defense. And they have ZERO interest in SLS because it is far too expensive and flies too infrequently to meet the Pentagon’s needs for assured access to space.

    You want assured access to space? Contract a whole different bunch of manufacturers to competitively build rockets for you. That’s what the DoD did with the EELV / NSSL program, and now there are SIX families of rockets flying / being developed for assured access to space: SpaceX Falcon family, ULA Atlas V, Delta IV and Vulcan, Blue Origin New Glenn, and Northrop Grumman Omega. That’s assured access. SLS is the antithesis of that.

  13. …and for me that’s an ironclad argument for why the private sector is better at this than NASA or any other government entity…

    Various people are all over the map on SLS. They lack basic understanding of this reality, they reduced a complex issue into a one dimensional cartoon.

    Their limited outlook is the quintessential reason why direct democracy could never work at scale.

    The govt must own all the key tech it uses, this allows it to never depend on the vicissitudes of the balance sheet. Which company would be willing to develop tech to be owned by another entity unless first mover costs were covered and profit guaranteed. SpaceX owns their own tech, what’s the govt to do if SpaceX fails in 5 or 10 years with no SLS or some other independent access to space?

    If every shortsighted, money obsessed loon, clutching a bottle of night train, must die a pauper in the gutter in order to ensure a secure and stable future, that’s a very small price to pay.

    SLS or some equivalent r&d effort that result in the same independent capability is worth any price, this has always been the consistent will of a plurality of the electorate.

  14. I just sent a letter to Ted Cruz on this very subject. He’s in a unique position to hold hearings as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Space, and Competitiveness. This is an oversight committee, not an appropriating one, but oversight is likely the first step to serious reform. The best way to get Shelby to be a bit more flexible is to embarrass him, and Cruz can do that.

    And he likely has motivation to do so. Not only will Johnson Space Center do more business if lunar crews have to be trained and lunar operations developed (which are two of JSC’s main functions), but SpaceX is a major employer in Texas. Any substitution of a commercial architecture to get Orion to TLI would be a major boon to the state.

    I urge you all to write.

  15. Space X doesn’t do LH2. That’s why I support SLS. Cutting peoples throats who work very hard in aerospace doesn’t help.

  16. It would be like Musk starting Tesla by buying the acid-lead battery
    factory at Togliattigrad.

  17. If you mean to cut off the hanging junk from our space program? That is an unintended but real effect. Really though, it was intended to generate revenue at the taxpayer expense for the parent companies, and that it is doing extremely well.

  18. The private sector is building the SLS, these are the good old days when NASA actually build their own stuff.

  19. The process has become more important than the results. Bureaucrats have taken over from engineers.

  20. The SLS is the preferred system for getting astronauts to the ISS… as long as it doesn’t fly.

    And NASA, sorry to say, has a vested interest (IMO) in the SLS never flying. Right now it’s a jobs program. It’s expected to produce ‘results’ – sometime. Maybe. But it’s not a balls to the wall, “We have to get this POS off the drawing board and get it into the air” priority to get results like during the ’60s. If it flies – there’s a chance of something going wrong and that would reflect very badly on NASA.

    Anyone check to see when the retirement dates are on the folks running the SLS program? If they can stall off a launch long enough, they can bail before the flight and go “Welp, not MY fault it didn’t go as planned!”

  21. NASA has been captured by big corporations, and it’s lobbyists, just like EPA, and FDA. It only pays lip service to it’s original goals, while enriching it’s masters.

  22. the problem is that you can make the same comparison between sls and 1960s NASA.
    something is wrong with the current government system, but it used to be possible to overcome it. Back when they actually did have nazis in NASA and kept out the communists. (may not be the actual cause, I’m just saying. )

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