The gigantic rocket that NASA is building to send astronauts to the moon is likely to be delayed and over budget – again. That is according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, which has looked at the hardware that NASA has developed for in-depth human exploration. The report, originally leaked The Washington Post, is the newest in a long string of reviews who have identified planning problems and cost overruns with the rocket development program.
For most of the past decade, NASA has developed two major vehicles to transport people outside of Earth's orbit. One is the Space Launch System or SLS, a huge rocket that can send people to the vicinity of the moon's surface. The other is a capsule from the crew called Orion, which people use when they travel on top of the SLS. The two vehicles would be launched together for the first time in 2017, but the inaugural flight has been consistently reduced and is now scheduled for June 2020. The delays also led to cost overruns for the SLS program, which added up to an additional $ 1 billion, according to NASA.
The new GAO report from today claims that NASA is unlikely to meet the June 2020 deadline. Instead, the SLS may fly for the first time in June 2021, especially if the agency encounters more difficulties in compiling and testing of the rocket. Moreover, the GAO accuses NASA of not being transparent about the cost estimates for both the SLS and the Orion. The GAO report finds that the cost of the increase to the SLS program is actually closer to $ 1.8 billion, because NASA shifted a number of associated costs from the rocket to future missions. Orion's costs are also expected to rise, but the GAO does not have a good idea of what it will be because NASA has not updated its estimates for the program.
In spite of all these delays and cost overruns, NASA has still given "award costs" to Boeing and Lockheed, the primary contractors for SLS and Orion, respectively, which have amounted to $ 200 million. These fees are usually given to the agency's contractors for proper implementation and maintenance schedule. But the GAO report calls on Boeing because it underestimates how many employees it would need for the SLS build and the complexity of the rocket design.
NASA & William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration, responded to the GAO report by reminding the office that the SLS and Orion will be some of the most advanced hardware ever & # 39 ;, and that & # 39; NASA pushes the limits of human exploration & # 39 ;. He argued that while the program has faced & # 39; s challenges, the GAO report has the & # 39; worst-case schema outcomes & # 39; imagined. Gerstenmaier also disagreed with the claim that NASA was not transparent about costs, arguing that NASA had to do with uncertainty in its budgets and direction. That made it difficult to be efficient and implement programs effectively.
Efficiency will become even more important in the future. The GAO identified very little scope for errors in the SLS schedule, because it is full to a large test that the program must complete, also known as the & # 39; green run & # 39; test. That is when the main core of the rocket will be fired on the ground to see if all components of the rocket work together. Any delay could jeopardize NASA's current ambitions.
Both the SLS and the Orion play an important role in NASA's goal of bringing people back to the surface of the moon, part of a new initiative called Artemis. In March, Vice President Mike Pence called on NASA to speed up his lunar program and send people to the moon in 2024 instead of 2028, as the agency had planned. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is now seeking funding from Congress for this accelerated deadline. The agency asked for an additional $ 1.6 billion for the fiscal year 2020, in addition to the $ 21 billion budget requested by NASA, to fund the Artemis program. And Bridenstine told CNN that he estimates that an additional $ 20 to $ 30 billion will be needed in the next five years – in addition to NASA's annual budget – to ensure that the agency reaches the moon by 2024.
Even if Congress somehow finances the entire program as desired, meeting the 2024 deadline depends on the NASA hardware being built on time. This latest report shows that the GAO remains pessimistic about the prospect of Orion and the SLS to achieve that five-year goal.
In the meantime, NASA will continue with the program. The agency says it will adhere to some of the recommendations that the GAO has recommended in its report, including ways to make better estimates for the program. However, NASA has not said it will update the estimated launch date for the SLS, so it appears that the agency is still looking for a launch next year, despite the GAO's doubts.