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NASA’s second mobile launcher is too heavy, years late and weighs $1 billion

NASA's second mobile launcher is too heavy, years late and weighs $1 billion
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Enlarge / A comparison of the initial variant of the Space Launch System rocket (left), with the upgraded variant, as well as the original and new mobile launch towers.

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Three years ago, NASA awarded a cost-plus contract to engineering firm Bechtel to design and build a large mobile launch tower. The 118-meter tower will support the refueling and liftoff of a larger, more capable version of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket that could make its debut in the second half of this decade.

When Bechtel won the contract for this mobile launcher, named ML-2, it was expected to cost $383 million. But according to a scathing new report from NASA’s inspector general, the project is already years behind schedule, the launcher is too heavy, and the whole thing is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. The new project cost estimate is $960 million.

“We found that Bechtel’s poor performance is the primary reason for the large projected cost increases,” said the report, signed by Inspector General Paul Martin. The report finds that Bechtel underestimated the scope and complexity of the project. In turn, Bechtel officials have sought to blame some of the project’s cost increases on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last spring, NASA had already committed $435.6 million for the project. However, despite these large grants, by May the design work for the massive launch tower was still incomplete, Martin reports. In fact, Bechtel doesn’t expect construction to begin until the end of calendar year 2022 at the earliest.

Lots of mistakes

The report cites a litany of mistakes by contractor Bechtel, but does not spare NASA from criticism. For example, Martin said NASA awarded the contract to Bechtel before specifications for the upper stage of the Space Launch System rocket were finalized. (The major rocket upgrade will come via a more powerful second stage, known as the Exploration Upper Stage, or EUS). This lack of final requirements to fit the EUS has hampered the design of the mobile launch tower, which must fuel and power the rocket on the ground.

NASA’s explanation for this is that it had no choice but to go ahead with the design and construction of the tower to meet a schedule for its lunar missions. The first three flights of the Artemis program, culminating in a human lunar lander no earlier than 2025, are to fly on the initial variant of the Space Launch System rocket (which has its own separate mobile launch tower). However, starting with the Artemis IV mission, NASA wants to launch lunar missions on the more powerful and improved version of the SLS rocket, which will require the new mobile launch tower.

Nominally, this mission is scheduled for 2026, but in reality it won’t fly until 2027 or 2028, due to delays in previous Artemis flights. Nevertheless, NASA has insisted that the construction of this second mobile launch tower be ready for 2026 and has requested that design work be done on the tower before the final rocket requirements are known. This will likely incur additional costs, pushing the price of the second mobile launch tower above $1 billion.

“We expect even greater cost increases as NASA anticipates the potential for additional changes due to the finalization of EUS requirements and technical challenges once ML-2 construction begins,” the report said. new report. “In light of these issues, NASA is re-evaluating the budget and schedule estimates for the ML-2 project to provide a more accurate representation of planned increases.”

The scourge of cost-plus

Still, Martin blames the majority of the project’s cost and delay issues on Bechtel. The situation got so bad that NASA took the extraordinary step of removing the work from Bechtel’s plate without reducing its payments to the contractor. In early 2022, to allow Bechtel to better focus on the main project, NASA and Bechtel agreed to remove the development of the umbilicals from the contract. NASA will use a different contractor for these cables and pipes and supply them to Bechtel for integration into the tower.

In light of skyrocketing costs, NASA has sought to move the remaining work on the mobile launcher contract from a cost-plus contract mechanism, in which the government is responsible for overruns, to a one-time contract. fixed price, in which the private entrepreneur assumes the financial risk. The report indicates that such an agreement has not yet been concluded, however.

Mobile launch tower development issues and the impending release of Martin’s report are of growing concern to senior NASA officials who worry about congressional backlash.

In early May, during testimony before the U.S. Congress, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson contemplated the huge costs of the launch tower when seeking cost-plus contracts. Citing the virtues of fixed-price contracts, Nelson said“You make it cheaper, and it allows us to move away from what has plagued us in the past, which is a cost-plus contract, and move to an existing contract price.”

List image by NASA/David Zeiters

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