In a scathing report released ThursdayNASA’s inspector general said a second version of the mobile launcher, needed to accommodate a taller version of the rocket, is expected to cost at least $1 billion, more than twice the value of the original contract that the NASA awarded in 2019. IG said it would take another 2.5 years to build.
NASA has already built a mobile launch vehicle for its Space Launch System rocket, at a cost of $668.7 million. This program also suffered huge cost increases after NASA’s Constellation program was canceled, meaning the agency had to redesign the tower to accommodate another rocket, the SLS.
But this mobile launch tower will need to be replaced after just three missions because NASA plans to use a different version of the SLS, one with a more powerful upper stage this would increase the height of the rocket by about 40 feet, for later trips to the moon in its Artemis Lunar Campaign. The latest version of the SLS will be able to deliver 40% more payload to the lunar surface.
The additional expense of the launch tower and the expected delay was just one of many issues the inspector general identified with the program. He blamed the contractor, Bechtel, for its “poor performance” and “underestimating the scope and complexity of the ML-2 project”. ML-2 is short for Mobile Launcher 2.
Bechtel officials told the IG that part of the cost increase was due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company went through several management teams and experienced significant turnover. At one point, according to the IG report, company officials told NASA that they are “not designers and don’t normally do these kinds of designs.”
In a statement, Bechtel spokesman Fred deSousa said the company was “committed to successfully delivering” the launcher.
“The project experienced significant cost and schedule growth beyond initial good faith estimates, which did not appreciate the complexity of the project and the necessary changes resulting from the parallel evolution of the design of all the systems launch,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Inspector General’s report does not paint the full picture of what has led to the current situation, and we strongly disagree with the report’s overall conclusions on the main causes of the cost increase.”
The IG also found that “NASA management practices contributed to increased project costs and schedule delays.” For example, the space agency awarded the contract to Bechtel before the final design for the rocket’s upgraded upper stage had been finalized.
The report also states that despite Bechtel’s lackluster work, NASA awarded the company $8.2 million in awards for good performance.
Cost overruns could continue, the IG warned, as NASA has already spent $435.6 million on the project and construction has yet to begin. He said an analysis found only a 3.9% confidence level in the $1 billion price and that it could reach $1.5 billion.
The SLS rocket that will be used in the first Artemis mission is back on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, where it must undergo a second round of refueling and countdown tests.
An earlier test was cut short after NASA discovered a faulty valve in the rocket’s second stage and a leak in one of the fuel lines. NASA hopes to launch the Orion spacecraft into orbit around the moon, with no one on board, later this year.
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