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Lost in space: Time to rethink the Space Launch System

The United States may return to the moon, but the costs might be out of this world before anyone lands there again.

That’s the message from a March 10, 2020, NASA inspector general report, casting a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the country’s main deep-space exploration platform, the Space Launch System. In development since 2011, the SLS is an expendable, heavy launch vehicle designed to deliver astronauts to the moon, and one day on to Mars on the Artemis mission. The SLS is also intended to transport scientific missions to Jupiter and Saturn.

Blaming a lack of oversight at NASA as well as poor performance on the part of SLS prime contractor Boeing, the IG found that the cost of conveying astronauts to the Moon by 2024 could balloon from the initial estimate of $35 billion to more than $50 billion, an increase of 43 percent. Of course, once the costs of a program this large begin to grow, the stars may not even be the limit.

The SLS replaced the Ares V launch vehicle, which was scrapped when then-President Barack Obama canceled the Constellation Program in fiscal 2011. In the intervening years, private commercial aerospace in the United States grew by leaps and bounds, competing directly and winning bids against established contractors for valuable launch contracts. All the while, the SLS racked up cost overruns and delays.

In March 2019, the SLS and the Artemis mission received a shot in the arm when Vice President Mike Pence announced the Trump administration’s goal of returning Americans to the Moon by 2024. This kicked off a substantial budget increase for NASA, in part to expedite the SLS program.

But before everything gets off the ground, or more appropriately the launch pad, the NASA IG report has created uncertainty over the future of Artemis. According to the IG: “Each of the major element contracts for building the SLS for Artemis I — Stages, ICPS, Boosters, and RS-25 Engines — have experienced technical challenges, performance issues, and requirement changes that collectively have resulted in $2 billion of cost overruns and increases and at least 2 years of schedule delays.” (Artemis I refers to the first integrated flight of the SLS and the Orion spacecraft, the partially reusable crew vehicle being developed for the Artemis program.)

NASA spent $14.8 billion on the SLS by the end of FY19 and will have obligated a total of $17.4 billion by the Artemis I launch date in late 2020. Should that date slip until spring 2021, which seems likely, total SLS costs will increase to $18.3 billion.

Artemis II, the first crewed launch of Orion and the SLS, is scheduled to take place in late 2022. If this launch is delayed until 2023, costs will spike to more than $22.8 billion. By 2024, the SLS could cost in excess of $50 billion with Orion and ground systems factored in.

As if additional proof is necessary, the SLS provides yet another stark example of the broken federal acquisition system. Boeing has a cost-plus contract, meaning taxpayers are on the hook for any increase in costs. Even Economics 101 students could spot the dilemma this type of agreement creates: It provides no incentive for the contractor to stick to timelines or budgets.

The IG report means more grief for Boeing, which already faces criticism for the poor performance of its Starliner capsule, intended to ferry crew to the International Space Station; the KC-46 tanker, long over budget and behind schedule; and the continued global grounding of the 737 Max aircraft.

The upside for the company is that its miserable year resulted in a nice carve-out in the stimulus package signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020.

According to a March 25, 2020, Washington Post article, legislators inserted a provision in the Senate version of the bill, which was then passed by the House of Representatives, that would provide $17 billion for businesses labeled as “critical for national security.” This money was intended largely for Boeing.

As is typically the case with delays and cost overruns in NASA programs, stricter oversight is required, and a substantial increase in competition might get everything off the ground without breaking the bank. NASA should reevaluate whether Artemis is still worthy of funding and, in an era of booming commercial aerospace, consider if the private sector or SLS offers the most effective and efficient way back to Mars and beyond.

Sean Kennedy is the director of research at Citizens Against Government Waste.

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