NASA can look forward to even more costs and longer delays for its next big rocket

Once again, NASA can expect even more delays and budget increases for its Space Launch System (or SLS) — the behemoth rocket the space agency is building to take humans to the Moon and Mars.

Today, NASA’s inspector general, which performs periodic audits of the space agency’s programs, released a scathing report on the current status of the Space Launch System’s development — and things look bleak. The rocket, which has already suffered from numerous cost overruns and budget delays, is projected to cost billions of dollars more than expected. The vehicle also probably won’t be ready to fly by June 2020, the current target date for the rocket’s first launch.

The report blames many of the issues on Boeing, the main contractor of the SLS. Boeing has been struggling with the development of the SLS core stage — the main body of the rocket that contains the primary engines and most of the propellant. The first core stage, meant to be used on the SLS’s inaugural test flight, was supposed to be delivered in June of 2017. It’s now expected to be ready by December 2019, and chances are it will probably come even later than that. The inspector general argues that these delays can be blamed on “poor performance” on the part of Boeing. The company has consistently given bad estimates for how much work is required for the core stage, as well as how many people are needed to complete it, the report says.

will be the most powerful rocket in the world when it is finished, capable of putting nearly 290,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.

won’t be ready to fly until 2024 at the very earliest, and that’s likely to change given all these delays. Meanwhile Block 1 can only loft a little more than 200,000 pounds into orbit. That’s not much more than the capability of current vehicles like the Falcon Heavy, which can put about 140,000 pounds into the same orbit. And the Falcon Heavy costs anywhere between $90 million to $150 million to launch — a small cost compared to SLS development.

Perhaps the biggest thing keeping SLS alive at this point is its strong backing in Congress. Much of SLS development takes place in Alabama, and the state’s representative, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), has been the rocket’s biggest advocate. Shelby ensures that the vehicle gets adequate funding every year, and it seems likely he will continue to fight for the program. Additionally, many jobs supporting the SLS program are spread throughout the US, giving the vehicle extra support in Congress.

However, this report is not good news for SLS supporters. NASA will need to make some big changes in how the program is run, or this rocket is likely to stay on the ground.


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