NASA and Boeing have been working together since 2012 to build the most powerful rocket in history, the Space Launch System (SLS), with the intention of sending humans to Mars and other deep space targets in the coming decades. But while the project started with lofty goals, it has since been plagued by delays, soaring costs, and most recently, a scathing audit from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).
Released on Wednesday, the OIG audit admonishes Boeing for its “poor performance” and NASA for “unacceptable” practices concerning the late delivery of two rocket components known as Core Stages that Boeing is contracted to build. Powered by four RS-25 engines, the same boosters used on the retired Space Shuttles, the core stage is the central launch component in the SLS.
“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 2½ years from June 2017 to December 2019 and may slip further,” the report reads. “Boeing officials have consistently underestimated the scope of the work to be performed and thus the size and skills of the workforce required.”
When NASA contracted Boeing to build two SLS Core Stages in 2012, the hope was to achieve a maiden flight dubbed Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) by the end of 2017. EM-1 would use SLS to send NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a next-generation spacecraft for astronauts, on a multi-week unmanned test flight around the Moon. This mission has now been pushed back to 2020.
A second mission, Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) is intended to be the first to include astronauts on a lunar flyby flight. If successful, EM-2 would be the first mission to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972. While it was originally slated for 2021, EM-2 has now been pushed back to 2022. By that time, SpaceX plans to be on the verge of launching its own crewed lunar missions with the BFR rocket, which many space commentators predict will be far more cost-effective than SLS.
While Boeing bore the brunt of the blame in the report, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center also took some heat for allowing “a number of unacceptable procurement practices.” These included failure to track some of the costs incurred by the two Core Stages, continuing to pay large award fees even though Boeing was underperforming, and lacking an approved plan for future Core Stage production.
Representatives of NASA responded to the audit by stating that they largely agree with the OIG’s recommendations to conduct a thorough review of Boeing’s contract and develop a more realistic approach to future budget and deadline estimates.
"The recent report from NASA's Office of the Inspector General, along with other reviews, helps the agency improve performance," NASA said in a statement to Space.com. "NASA and Boeing are well underway in implementing the report's recommendations, several of which are already yielding steady and significant improvements."
In a statement given to SpaceNews.com, Boeing said that “the program described in the OIG’s report does not represent the Space Launch System (SLS) program today.”
“Accordingly, we have restructured our leadership team to better align with current program challenges and we are refining our approaches and tools to ensure a successful transition from development to production,” Boeing’s statement read. “We believe that these actions will result in a successful delivery of Core Stage 1 and establish a firm foundation that will serve the program’s long-term objectives.”
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