Boeing struggles to meet production goals for NASA’s next big rocket

A rendering of NASA’s new Space Launch System

NASA contracted with The Boeing Company (Boeing) in 2012 to build two SLS Core Stages-that is, the first stage of the rocket consisting of the fuel tanks and supporting infrastructure-and later an Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), a new and more powerful second stage created to increase the SLS's upmass capability.

NASA's Office of Inspector General is tasked with investigating instances of potential fraud, waste and abuse of programs that impact the agency.

The much-anticipated premiere of NASA's Space Launch System rocket will likely face yet another push to the right, this time beyond mid-2020, as the program faces billions in cost overruns and years in delays, according to a scathing audit released Wednesday by the agency's Office of Inspector General.

"Boeing's cost and schedule challenges are likely to worsen, given that the SLS has yet to undergo its "Green Run Test" - a major milestone that integrates and tests the Core Stage components", NASA said in a summary of the report.

NASA, though, did not escape blame for the SLS core stage problems in the report.

The larger figure is double the contract's initial budget. Overall, there are a number of top-line findings in this report, which cast a mostly if not completely negative light on Boeing and, to a lesser extent, NASA and its most expensive spaceflight project.

"At its current rate, we project Boeing will expend at least $8.9 billion through 2021 - double the amount initially planned - while delivery of the first Core Stage has slipped 2 1⁄2 years from June 2017 to December 2019 and may slip further", the OIG said. To achieve this goal, NASA is once again pursuing space travel beyond low Earth orbit, and key to this effort is development of the Space Launch System (SLS)-a two-stage, heavy-lift rocket that will launch the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) into space. Consequently, in light of the Project's development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window now scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020.

The SLS core stage is the central element of the SLS, consisting of a modified version of the space shuttle's external tank with four RS-25 engines mounted in its base. Considering the SLS Program's cost overages and schedule delays, we question almost $64 million of the award fees already provided to Boeing. Even with additional funding, NASA's estimated first SLS launch in June 2020 is questionable now. In addition, development of command and control hardware and software necessary for Core Stage testing is 2 years behind schedule, while equipment-related mishaps and an extreme weather event contributed to cost and schedule delays.

There is a rather remarkable section of the report that discusses the reasons for these delays. Delivery of the programme's first core stage has already slipped two-and-a-half years to December 2019, the report said.

The inspector general appeared to be having none of this, however. "By the end of FY 2015, the company had received $706 million, only $53 million less than requested for its work to build two core stages", the report states. NASA had wanted to get the SLS in the air by late 2017 at a cost of $5-7 billion. "According to NASA officials", the report stated, "the schedule slippage can not be explained by a lack of adequate funding".

In response to a query from Ars, Boeing issued the following statement: "An unprecedented rocket program has inherent challenges; developing the first unit of a system that will safely carry humans into space, even more so". "NASA had rated Boeing's performance as "excellent" in three periods and "very good" in three others and awarded it $323 million or 90 percent of the available award and incentive fees", the report stated.

To meet the schedule for an uncrewed test flight around the moon by 2020, followed by a crewed flight in 2022 and the development of a new upper-stage booster for flights after that, the SLS program will have to be given a "major increase in funding" and renegotiate NASA's contract with Boeing, the report says. And the price tag for the biggest USA rocket ever?

"The SLS is the largest launch system in the history of space flight", Gerstenmaier's response states. "The design, development, manufacturing, test, and operations of the system are highly complex and represent a national investment in a long-term commitment to deep space exploration". But it seems an increasingly hard sell after SpaceX developed the not-quite-as-large-or-complex Falcon Heavy rocket for $500 million. To be clear, the vice president has been publicly supportive of the SLS rocket to date.

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