Mobile Launchers: NASA’s Billion Dollar Bungle

The VAB is the large building located in the upper left corner of the photograph and ML-1 is the tall tower-like structure resting on the crawler-transporter located in the lower right corner. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The latest audit of NASA’s troubled Artemis lunar program had some good news and some bad news regarding the mobile launch (ML) platforms that will be used for flights of the Space Launch System (SLS) that will send American astronauts back to the moon.

“After nearly a decade of development, ML-1 is nearing completion in support of the launch of Artemis I, the first integrated, uncrewed flight test of the SLS and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion),” the report from NASA Office of Inspector General (IG) said. (Full Report)

And now, the bad news.

“As of January 2020, modification of ML-1 to accommodate the SLS has cost $693 million—$308 million more than the Agency’s March 2014 budget estimate—and is running more than 3 years behind schedule,” the audit added. “Looking ahead, the project faces a risk of further cost increases and schedule slippage as ML-1 completes testing for Artemis I and undergoes modifications for Artemis II.”

Note: Gray highlighted data are budget projections provided by the Kennedy Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
a NASA originally spent $234 million to build the Ares 1 mobile launch structure that subsequently has been modified to accommodate the SLS launch vehicle.
Source: NASA OIG analysis of Kennedy Office of the Chief Financial Officer data.

Did we mention that ML-1 was originally built at a cost of $234 million for the Ares I booster, which was canceled in October 2010? Thus, the total cost for the launch platform comes to $997 million when one adds in the $693 million spent to modify it for the larger and heavier SLS booster.

Design and construction costs to modify ML-1 (Source: NASA OIG analysis of Agency financial data)

To top it off, ML-1 will be used for a maximum of four SLS launches. NASA plans to build a second ML to accommodate larger, more powerful variants of the giant booster.

Comparison of Ares I with Space Launch System (SLS) Block One. Source: NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) presentation of Agency information. (Credit: NASA OIG)

All in all, not exactly NASA’s best work.

So, what precisely led to the large cost overrun and years of delay? The IG says mistakes were made on all sides.

“The Agency’s acquisition approach for ML-1, which lacked coordination and competition with design contractors, coupled with immature SLS requirements resulted in design errors and integration challenges that drove the project’s cost increases and schedule delays,” the report stated.

Source of structural construction contract cost increases. (Source: NASA OIG analysis of structural construction contract modifications, as of March 2019.

“Specifically, the ML-1 project experienced numerous design errors during the outfitting of the tower that resulted in cabling and structural conflicts, equipment that did not work as intended, and issues with fabrication of the connections known as umbilicals that provide power, communications, oxygen, and fuel,” the document added.

“NASA exacerbated these issues by accepting unproven and untested designs from one of the project’s contractors,” the audit added. “Additionally, immature SLS requirements resulted in integration challenges that also contributed to increased costs and caused schedule delays. As a result of these issues, NASA incurred substantial unplanned costs for a system the Agency currently plans to use for three or four missions.”

The audit said NASA has learned a number of valuable lessons the space agency is applying to the $486 million ML-2 project.

Comparison between ML-1 and ML-2 concepts. (Source: NASA OIG presentation of Agency information)

“Specifically, NASA is utilizing a single contract to both design and build ML-2 that the Agency believes will remedy a majority of the communication and integration issues that occurred during modification of ML-1,” the report said.

“Under such a contract, the Agency expects to better facilitate builder involvement during design; utilize a single, integrated 3D model of ML-2 that should improve communication of requirement changes; enable the contractor to suggest commercial best practices; improve monitoring of vehicle loads requirements; and require fewer parts to be designed and built by NASA for the contractor to install,” the audit stated.

However, the audit said ML-2 faces schedule risks because of immature requirements for SLS and Orion, the use of award fees that could limit NASA’s ability to motivate the contractor to perform better, and the lack of key project management requirements that would improve insight and transparency on the project.

The IG made four recommendations to address these concerns. NASA accepted the recommendations and outlined corrected steps to address them that the IG found responsive to the concerns.

A summary of the report follows.

Audit of NASA’S Development of its Mobile Launchers

NASA Office of Inspector General
March 17, 2020
Report No. IG-20-013
Full Report

Findings in Brief

Why We Performed This Audit

In May 2019, NASA announced the Artemis program with the goal to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon by 2024 using the Space Launch System (SLS), the Agency’s new heavy-lift rocket. The Agency is developing two mobile launchers at Kennedy Space Center that will serve as the ground structure to assemble, process, transport, and launch the SLS.

The first mobile launcher (ML-1)—originally constructed in 2010 for the since-cancelled Constellation Program’s Ares I launch vehicle at a cost of $234 million—required large-scale modifications to support the SLS. In addition to being bigger, more powerful, and much heavier than Ares I, the SLS employs a different rocket configuration: the SLS includes two Solid Rocket Boosters side-mounted to a Core Stage while the Ares I rocket was an in-line, two-stage rocket.

After nearly a decade of development, ML-1 is nearing completion in support of the launch of Artemis I, the first integrated, uncrewed flight test of the SLS and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion). NASA currently plans to utilize ML-1 to launch Artemis I, Artemis II, Artemis III, and possibly a science mission to a moon of Jupiter.

The Agency is also developing a second mobile launcher (ML-2) for future, larger variants of the SLS. NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate oversees the development of ML-1 and ML-2 as part of its Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) Program.

This audit assessed the Agency’s development of its mobile launchers. Specifically, we examined whether NASA has

(1) met cost, schedule, and performance goals in readying ML-1 for launching Artemis I and

(2) incorporated best practices and lessons learned from the development of ML-1 into the development of ML-2.

To complete this work, we interviewed EGS and other NASA personnel and representatives from contractors constructing the mobile launchers. We also reviewed federal, NASA, and EGS criteria, policies and procedures, supporting documentation, prior audit reports, and other documents related to the construction of ML-1 and ML-2.

What We Found

NASA has greatly exceeded its cost and schedule targets in developing ML-1. As of January 2020, modification of ML-1 to accommodate the SLS has cost $693 million—$308 million more than the Agency’s March 2014 budget estimate—and is running more than 3 years behind schedule. Looking ahead, the project faces a risk of further cost increases and schedule slippage as ML-1 completes testing for Artemis I and undergoes modifications for Artemis II.

The Agency’s acquisition approach for ML-1, which lacked coordination and competition with design contractors, coupled with immature SLS requirements resulted in design errors and integration challenges that drove the project’s cost increases and schedule delays. Specifically, the ML-1 project experienced numerous design errors during the outfitting of the tower that resulted in cabling and structural conflicts, equipment that did not work as intended, and issues with fabrication of the connections known as umbilicals that provide power, communications, oxygen, and fuel.

NASA exacerbated these issues by accepting unproven and untested designs from one of the project’s contractors. Additionally, immature SLS requirements resulted in integration challenges that also contributed to increased costs and caused schedule delays. As a result of these issues, NASA incurred substantial unplanned costs for a system the Agency currently plans to use for three or four missions.

Looking to ML-2, NASA has taken positive steps to address lessons learned from the design and development of ML-1. Specifically, NASA is utilizing a single contract to both design and build ML-2 that the Agency believes will remedy a majority of the communication and integration issues that occurred during modification of ML-1.

Under such a contract, the Agency expects to better facilitate builder involvement during design; utilize a single, integrated 3D model of ML-2 that should improve communication of requirement changes; enable the contractor to suggest commercial best practices; improve monitoring of vehicle loads requirements; and require fewer parts to be designed and built by NASA for the contractor to install.

Despite these positive steps, NASA is missing opportunities to improve project management and oversight of the $486 million ML-2 project. First, the ML-2 schedule is risky due to expected vehicle load and interface requirements changes for the Orion and later variations of the SLS with already limited time for testing that could be further impacted by development delays.

Second, the ML-2’s design-build contract structure utilizes award fees, which if implemented similar to the ML-1 project may limit the Agency’s ability to motivate the ML-2 contractor to improve performance and control costs. Finally, NASA’s approach to managing the ML-2 project lacks key project management requirements that would provide greater levels of oversight and transparency.

At the time of our audit, the ML-2 project had not finalized plans to

(1) conduct life-cycle and milestone reviews with NASA’s senior management separate from the EGS Program, limiting the Agency’s ability to make timely adjustments to a project that has significant risk of cost and schedule increases, or

(2) establish a project-specific Agency Baseline Commitment, limiting project visibility and NASA’s ability to make adjustments prior to providing additional funding.

Without greater transparency into the project’s progress, it will be difficult for Agency officials and members of Congress to make informed decisions about the development of dependent programs, funding priorities, and upcoming missions.

What We Recommended

To improve potential outcomes for ML-2 development, we made four recommendations to NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate:

(1) identify immature vehicle load and interface requirements for the ML-2 project and coordinate with appropriate offices to mitigate cost and schedule risks,

(2) develop a process to ensure contractor performance ratings and related award fees for the ML-2 contract are consistent with established criteria and project outcomes,

(3) ensure life-cycle and milestone reviews incorporate programmatic and technical risks and are conducted with the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and other senior Agency officials, and

(4) require the ML-2 project to develop an Agency Baseline Commitment separate from the EGS Program.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with these recommendations and described their planned remedial actions. We consider the proposed actions responsive and will close the recommendations upon completion and verification.