Audit: SLS 33-43 Percent Over Budget, First Launch Slips to 2021

The first Artemis rocket stage is guided toward NASA’s Pegasus barge Jan. 8 ahead of its forthcoming journey to NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. (Credits: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The latest audit of NASA’s troubled Space Launch System (SLS) finds the program is now even more behind schedule and over budget than previously thought, with the space agency failing to fully account to Congress for almost $6 billion in program costs.

“Based on our review of SLS Program cost reporting, we found that the Program exceeded its Agency Baseline Commitment (ABC)—that is, the cost and schedule baselines committed to Congress against which a program is measured—by at least 33 percent at the end of fiscal year 2019, a figure that could reach 43 percent or higher if additional delays push the launch date for Artemis I beyond November 2020,” according to the audit by the NASA Office of Inspector General. [Full Report]

The giant booster is crucial to NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the moon by 2024. SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft, a human lander, and elements of the Lunar Gateway that will serve as an orbital base for astronauts exploring the moon.

Source: NASA OIG summary of Agency information.

The audit found the schedule for the first SLS launch, known as Artemis I, has slipped from June 2020 into 2021. The report estimates that total program costs will rise to $18.3 billion by the time of the planned mission, which will send an automated Orion spacecraft on a flight around the moon.

NASA has also shielded the full cost of the SLS program through accounting measures, the document stated.

Source: NASA OIG analysis of Agency information.

Note: NASA’s current Artemis I launch date is November 2020 (the beginning of FY 2021) and may be subject to additional delays. To simplify our analysis, we measured the amount of costs spent outside the ABC through FY 2020 and did not include program spending for FY 2021 or later, almost none of which is subject to tracking or reporting against the ABC.

“Further, we found NASA’s ABC cost reporting only tracks Artemis I-related activities and not total SLS Program costs. Overall, by the end of fiscal year 2020, NASA will have spent more than $17 billion on the SLS Program—including almost $6 billion not tracked or reported as part of the ABC,” the audit found.

The report said that SLS program costs will increase to more than $22.8 billion if the Artemis II mission slips into 2023. That flight will be the first crewed flight test of the Orion spacecraft around the moon.

Source: NASA OIG analysis of SLS Program ABC baseline from 2014, ABC replan in 2017, and updated SLS Program estimates from October 2019. NASA’s October 2019 cost estimates are based on a March 2021 launch date for Artemis I.

Note: As of October 2019, NASA estimated total ABC costs tied to Artemis I were $11.42 billion with $8.75 billion in development costs and an additional $2.67 billion in formulation costs that occurred prior to setting the Program’s baseline in 2014.

The Artemis III mission is scheduled to be the first landing on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.

The OIG report made the following recommendations to NASA:

(1) notify Congress that the SLS Program has exceeded its ABC by at least 30 percent;

(2) review Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and NASA program management policies, procedures, and ABC reporting processes to provide greater visibility into current, future, and overall cost and schedule estimates for the SLS Program and other human space flight programs;

(3) for new acquisitions of SLS deliverables, develop a cost accounting model that separates each deliverable into its own CLIN for tracking costs, performance, and award fees;

(4) for large award fee contracts where NASA has on-site personnel, ensure selected personnel are clearly assigned the task of monitoring and reporting on the performance of the contractor; and

(5) conduct a thorough review of each contract’s scope of work and technical requirements needed to complete the period of performance to assist in eliminating incremental contract value increases and lessening contract management burden.

The audit said NASA management concurred with all five recommendations, but that its proposed actions for addressing one of them fell short.

“We consider management’s comments responsive for four of the five recommendations; as such, these recommendations will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions. In Recommendation 3, management only addressed the Core Stage and Upper Stage CLINs, and not future acquisitions of Boosters and RS-25 Engines. Therefore, this recommendation is unresolved pending further discussions with the Agency,” the audit stated.

A summary of the report follows.

NASA’s Management of Space Launch System Program Costs and Contracts

National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Office of Inspector General
March 10, 2020

Full Report

Why We Performed This Audit

NASA announced the Artemis program in May 2019, setting the ambitious goal of returning American astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Key to achieving this mission is the Space Launch System (SLS)—a two-stage, heavy-lift rocket that will launch the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) into space. Currently scheduled to launch no earlier than November 2020, Artemis I will serve as a test flight of the integrated SLS/Orion system, sending an uncrewed Orion into orbit around the Moon followed by a return to Earth. Artemis II, scheduled to launch in October 2022, will be the first crewed mission for the new launch system, and plans to orbit the Moon. The Artemis III mission in late 2024 plans to land astronauts on the Moon’s south pole to begin creating a sustainable human lunar presence.

In 2011 and 2012, NASA contracted with three commercial companies—The Boeing Company (Boeing), Aerojet-Rocketdyne (Aerojet), and Northrop Grumman—to develop the major elements of the SLS for the first two Artemis missions. Specifically, Boeing would provide the launch system’s Core Stage and Upper Stage (also known as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage or ICPS), Aerojet the RS-25 Engines, and Northrop Grumman the Solid Rocket Boosters (Boosters) that help power the SLS. As of December 2019, NASA had obligated $14.8 billion on the SLS Program and is expected to spend a total of $17.4 billion by the Artemis I launch date. Besides Artemis I costs, these amounts include preparation for Artemis II and III, new engine development, and improved Boosters. However, as of January 2020, NASA anticipates the Artemis I launch date will slip to spring 2021, over 2 years later than its initial planned launch date, with total SLS Program costs rising to $18.3 billion by that time. Moreover, if the Artemis II launch date slips to 2023, total SLS Program costs by then will increase to more than $22.8 billion.

Our October 2018 audit examined cost and schedule challenges related to the Boeing Stages contract. This report updates the status of Stages development and examines the remaining major SLS elements and corresponding contracts with Boeing, Aerojet, and Northrop Grumman. Specifically, we assessed the extent to which (1) the SLS Program is meeting cost and schedule goals for Artemis I, (2) NASA is tracking and appropriately reporting overall cost and schedule goals, and (3) the SLS Program is managing cost and schedule for key contracts. To complete this work, we reviewed SLS Program and contractor cost and budget documentation, interviewed NASA and contractor personnel, and conducted site visits at NASA and contractor facilities.

What We Found

NASA continues to struggle managing SLS Program costs and schedule as the launch date for the first integrated SLS/Orion mission slips further. Rising costs and delays can be attributed to challenges with program management, technical issues, and contractor performance. For example, the structure of the SLS contracts limits visibility into contract costs and prevents NASA from determining precise costs per element. Specifically, rather than using separate contract line item numbers (CLIN) for each element’s contract deliverables, each of the contracts have used a single CLIN to track all deliverables making it difficult for the Agency to determine if the contractor is meeting cost and schedule commitments for each deliverable. Moreover, as NASA and the contractors attempt to accelerate the production of the SLS Core Stages to meet aggressive timelines, they must also address concerns about shortcomings in quality control.

Based on our review of SLS Program cost reporting, we found that the Program exceeded its Agency Baseline Commitment (ABC)—that is, the cost and schedule baselines committed to Congress against which a program is measured—by at least 33 percent at the end of fiscal year 2019, a figure that could reach 43 percent or higher if additional delays push the launch date for Artemis I beyond November 2020. This is due to cost increases tied to development of Artemis I and a December 2017 replan that removed almost $1 billion of costs from the Program’s ABC without lowering the baseline, thereby masking the impact of Artemis I’s projected 19-month schedule delay from November 2018 to June 2020. Since the replan, the SLS Program now projects the Artemis I launch will be delayed to at least spring 2021 or later. Further, we found NASA’s ABC cost reporting only tracks Artemis I-related activities and not total SLS Program costs. Overall, by the end of fiscal year 2020, NASA will have spent more than $17 billion on the SLS Program—including almost $6 billion not tracked or reported as part of the ABC.

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. We reported in October 2018 that Core Stage production is the primary factor contributing to overall SLS launch delays due to its position on the critical path and corresponding management, technical, and infrastructure issues driven mostly by Boeing’s poor performance. Boeing’s software development for the ICPS is also an ongoing concern as final modification of the software cannot be made until NASA finalizes the Artemis I mission requirements. Additionally, with regard to Northrop Grumman’s Boosters contract, numerous incremental contract modifications and the lack of a NASA appointed on-site technical monitor have contributed to an administrative burden on NASA management and issues with monitoring contractor performance. Moreover, both Northrop Grumman and Aerojet have experienced technical issues, with problems related to the Booster’s Propellant Liner and Insulation and development of RS-25’s new Engine Controller Unit proving difficult to overcome. While NASA has addressed many of the problematic issues in Core Stage, ICPS, Booster, and RS-25 Engine development, we expect additional cost increases totaling approximately $1.4 billion—$1.3 billion for Stages, $107 million for Boosters, and $41 million for ICPS—before the Artemis I launch. That said, NASA is positioned to gain efficiencies in future production of its Core Stage, Upper Stage, Boosters, and RS-25 Engines if they apply lessons learned from the current development phase.

What We Recommended

To increase the sustainability, accountability, and transparency of NASA’s efforts to manage the five major SLS element contracts to achieve its goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024, we made the following recommendations to NASA management:

(1) notify Congress that the SLS Program has exceeded its ABC by at least 30 percent;

(2) review Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and NASA program management policies, procedures, and ABC reporting processes to provide greater visibility into current, future, and overall cost and schedule estimates for the SLS Program and other human space flight programs;

(3) for new acquisitions of SLS deliverables, develop a cost accounting model that separates each deliverable into its own CLIN for tracking costs, performance, and award fees;

(4) for large award fee contracts where NASA has on-site personnel, ensure selected personnel are clearly assigned the task of monitoring and reporting on the performance of the contractor; and

(5) conduct a thorough review of each contract’s scope of work and technical requirements needed to complete the period of performance to assist in eliminating incremental contract value increases and lessening contract management burden.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with all of our recommendations. We consider management’s comments responsive for four of the five recommendations; as such, these recommendations will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions. In Recommendation 3, management only addressed the Core Stage and Upper Stage CLINs, and not future acquisitions of Boosters and RS-25 Engines. Therefore, this recommendation is unresolved pending further discussions with the Agency.