Click the arrow to listen to the August 27 teleconference.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, NASA executives announced August 27 that the Space Launch System is already delayed about a year.
Technically speaking, NASA now says that the program has a 70% confidence level that SLS will be “ready” by November 2018. “Ready” doesn't mean it will launch in that month; in fact, Bill Gerstenmaier and Robert Lightfoot went to great lengths to stress that the November 2018 estimate applies only to the rocket, not to the Orion crew vehicle or the European-built service module or the Kennedy Space Center ground systems upgrades.
Recent media reports suggest the service module is overweight and may not make its 2017 deadline.
In July 2014, the Government Accountability Office issued a report which warned that NASA “has not developed an executable business case based on matching the program’s cost and schedule resources with the requirement to develop the vehicle and conduct the first flight test in December 2017 at the required confidence level of 70 percent.”
The report also stated:
The SLS program has not yet defined specific mission requirements beyond the second flight test in 2021 or defined specific plans for achieving long-term goals, but the program has opportunities to promote affordability moving forward. NASA plans to incrementally develop more capable SLS launch vehicles to satisfy long-term goals, but future missions have not been determined, which will directly affect the program’s future development path and flight schedule.
This is no secret to anyone remotely paying attention to SLS.
Going all the way back to when Congress ordered NASA to build the SLS, warnings came from both within NASA and without that Congress was providing inadequate funding. An independent review by Booz Allen Hamilton in August 2011 warned that SLS cost estimates were “not suitable for long-term budget formulation or the development of Program baselines.”
Due to unjustified, sometimes substantial, assumed future cost savings; the ICA Team views each Program’s estimate as optimistic. Reserve levels were not based on a quantitative risk analysis and do not cover each Program’s Protect Scenario. Furthermore, each Protect Scenario excludes estimating uncertainty and unknown-unknown risks, which history indicates are major sources of cost growth on programs. Due to procurement of items still in development and large cost risks in the out years, NASA cannot have full confidence in the estimates for long-term planning.
Congress didn't care.
Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who would go on to dub SLS the “Monster Rocket,” went into denial and issued a joint statement with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX):
“I talked to [Administrator] Charlie Bolden yesterday and told him he has to follow the law, which requires a new rocket by 2016,” says Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “And . . . within the budget the law requires . . .”
“NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works,” the senators say in a joint bipartisan statement. “We believe it can be done affordably and efficiently — and, it must be a priority.”
Hutchison falsely claimed that the Booz Allen analysis concluded the SLS “can be initiated within our currently constrained fiscal limitations,” when of course it said no such thing.
An artist's concept of the Space Launch System. Image source: NASA.
To be fair, pretty much all space programs tend to run behind estimates. The Space Shuttle launched three years late. It took decades to build the International Space Station. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has claimed for years his commercial suborbital tourism business will fly any day now. SpaceX products go online years after promised, and try as they might the company has yet to regularly launch once a month as hoped.
But no one is saying that SLS has run into fundamental technical obstacles. Congress has been told time and again that the program would cost more than the legislative branch has authorized. Congress hasn't cared. And as the GAO pointed out, Congress still hasn't told NASA what the agency is supposed to do with the “Monster Rocket” other than protect legacy aerospace jobs.
Its purpose seems to be ... to exist.
That's why critics have dubbed the project the Senate Launch System.
The first Orion crew capsule is scheduled to launch in December atop a Boeing Delta IV from the Cape's Launch Pad 37. It will fly a two-orbit uncrewed demonstration mission before re-entering the atmosphere. That's it for SLS for four years — and one has to wonder what happens if Orion suffers a significant failure during the demo flight.
Already Republican members of Congress are blaming President Obama for the slip, even though Congress created SLS, not the Administration. Congress underfunded SLS, was told they underfunded SLS, ignored the warnings and now blames Obama for not insisting on more money than they were willing to provide.
Some days, I'm ashamed to be a taxpayer.