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