NASA’s new mega-rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), is likely to be delayed further and cost billions of dollars more than planned, according to a new report.
An investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the SLS was unlikely to meet its target launch date of mid-2020, and its cost would likely double to at least $8.9 billion by 2021.
"Consequently, in light of the Project’s development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020," the report said.
The SLS is NASA’s attempt to build a heavy-lift rocket that could enable crewed missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. It’s also been suggested it could be used for an uncrewed mission to Europa, possibly sending a lander to this moon of Saturn.
But the rocket has experienced a range of problems, with an initial launch date planned in December 2017. That was pushed back to a first mission in mid-2020, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), followed by Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) in mid-2022.
Much of the rocket, including its large core stage fuel tank, is being built by Boeing, and it’s this company the report points most of the blame at. They said Boeing’s “poor performance” was responsible for management, technical, and infrastructure issues.
“For example, Boeing officials have consistently underestimated the scope of the work to be performed and thus the size and skills of the workforce required,” the report said.
Overall, the report is pretty harsh in its assessment of the SLS. Ars Technica labeled the report “brutal”, noting the SLS was becoming an “increasingly difficult sell” in light of cheaper competitors like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
NASA responded to the claims by saying the SLS was “the most complex launch system the agency has ever developed,” noted Space.com. They said they were already working on the recommendations of the report, which “helps the agency improve performance.”
But The Verge noted that the “report provides ample ammunition to those who are critical of the SLS program.” They said that “the true strength of the SLS may not be realized for some time,” as the most powerful version of the rocket wouldn’t fly until 2024 at the earliest.
The SLS remains well and truly ingrained in American politics though, with 1,100 contractors across 43 states, so it’s unlikely to be canceled any time soon. But the report certainly makes for uncomfortable reading for many SLS proponents.