A newly released Space Launch System schematic. Image source: NASA.
A new audit released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that NASA's Space Launch System cost estimates lack “credibility” and estimates that SLS will cost the taxpayers $23 billion “to demonstrate initial capabilities.”
The cost and schedule estimates for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Space Launch System (SLS) program substantially complied with five of six relevant best practices, but could not be deemed fully reliable because they only partially met the sixth best practice — credibility.
One reason is that NASA has “no plans to update the original estimates created in 2013.” The introduction states, “SLS cost estimates only cover one SLS flight in 2018 whereas best practices call for estimating costs through the expected life of the program.”
The GAO's $23 billion cost estimate covers two flights “to demonstrate initial capabilities.” The report states, “This dollar estimate includes the first planned SLS flight in 2018, the ground systems for that effort, and the first two Orion flights currently planned for fiscal years 2018 and 2021 or 2022.” In other words, this refers to the Exploration Mission 1 and 2 flights, known as EM-1 and EM-2. The report notes, “NASA did not include the prior funds spent to develop these capabilities because they were developed under previous programs.” That means the cost estimate does not include money spent on Orion during Constellation, or money spent on ground system components such as the mobile launcher originally developed for the Ares I.
I wrote on March 5 that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified to the House appropriations subcommittee on space that although NASA maintains a 70% confidence interval that SLS will be ready by November 2018, that referred only to the rocket itself — not the Orion crew capsule. Bolden stated only that Orion would be ready “sometime after 2018” and that, since the purpose of the SLS is to launch the Orion, it's not going anywhere until Orion is ready to fly.
The GAO notes that Congress has tried throwing more money at SLS. “... [T]he Congress has appropriated additional funding for SLS in each of the past 3 fiscal years above the level requested by the program. The cumulative additional funding totals about $610 million more than requested for SLS for fiscal years 2013, 2014, and 2015.”
NASA warned in January 2011 that SLS would cost far more than what Congress authorized to achieve the first operation flight, mandated by Congress to be no later than December 31, 2016.
Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), the two who created the “Senate Launch System” to protect jobs in their states, responded to the report with a joint statement:
“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.”
I wrote in August 2011 that an independent review by Booz Allen Hamilton also concluded that SLS program cost estimates were “optimistic” and warned, “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.”
Senator Hutchison responded to the report by falsely claiming:
I expect this independent assessment will confirm what myself and the NASA technical staff have known for many months — that the SLS plan is financially and technically sound, and that NASA should move forward immediately.
Nelson and other members of Congress ignored reality when they held a media event in September 2011 to show off their SLS design. Nelson called it “the monster rocket.” Administrator Bolden was present, and allowed to make a few remarks, then receded into the shadows so the politicians could gloat about how many NASA contractor jobs they'd protected.
Here we are, almost four years later, and SLS is at least two years behind schedule while wasting tens of billions of dollars.
To give you a rough comparison, the SpaceX contract for delivering cargo to the International Space Station is for twelve flights totalling $1.6 billion in payments. Orbital ATK's commercial cargo contract is $1.9 billion for eight deliveries. For commercial crew, Boeing will be paid $4.2 billion if it makes six flights, while SpaceX will receive $2.6 billion.
NASA, meanwhile, has no choice but to continue playing along with the SLS congressional boondoggle.
A NASA blog article today was titled, “Just What Is An SLS, Anyway?” It's an open invitation to provide your own sarcastic retort.
An artist's concept of Space Launch System rolling out to the launch pad. Image source: NASA.
UPDATE July 17, 2015 — Florida Today reports on the audit.
NASA has committed to having the rocket ready for a 2018 launch at a cost of $9.7 billion, an estimate offered with 70 percent confidence of success.