Boeing has been building the core stage of NASA's Space Launch System rocket [arstechnica.com] for the better part of this decade, and the process has not always gone smoothly, with significant overruns and multiyear delays. A new report [nasa.gov] from NASA's inspector general makes clear just how badly the development process has gone, laying the blame mostly at the feet of Boeing.
"We found Boeing’s poor performance is the main reason for the significant cost increases and schedule delays to developing the SLS core stage," the report, signed by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, states. "Specifically, the project’s cost and schedule issues stem primarily from management, technical, and infrastructure issues directly related to Boeing’s performance."
As of August 2018, the report says, NASA has spent a total of $11.9 billion on the SLS. Even so, the rocket's critical core stage will be delivered more than three years later than initially planned—at double the anticipated cost. 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.
The report found that NASA will need to spend an additional $1.2 billion, on top of its existing $6.2 billion contract for the core stages of the first two SLS rockets, to reach a maiden launch date of June 2020. NASA originally planned to launch the SLS rocket on its maiden flight in November 2017.
However, given all of the development problems that the SLS rocket has seen, the report does not believe a mid-2020 date is likely either. "In light of the project’s development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020," the report states.
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There are other troubling hints about schedule in this new report, too. One concerns facilities at Stennis Space Center in Southern Mississippi, where NASA will conduct a "green run" test of the core stage of the SLS rocket. This is a critical test that will involve a full-scale firing of the rocket's core stage—four main engines along with liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel tanks—for a simulated launch and ascent into space.
The report found that Boeing's development of "command and control" hardware and software needed to conduct this test is already 18 months behind a schedule established in 2016. This means the Stennis facility won't be ready to accommodate a green run test until at least May 2019, with further delays possible.
This is critical, because often the most serious engineering problems are uncovered during the phase when key rocket components are integrated and tested. The delay in green-run testing means that any problems that crop up during that phase of development will only push the maiden launch of the SLS further into the future.
[...] SpaceX developed the not-quite-as-large-or-complex Falcon Heavy rocket for $500 million.
According to Wikipedia, Launch Prices for the Falcon Heavy (FH) [wikipedia.org] range up to $150 million. Let's assume a very generous extra $100 million per flight for related launch services. That means the $11.9 billion spent so far to develop a disposable SLS could have paid for both the development of the reusable Falcon Heavy, and for 45 flights, with $400 million left over.
Admittedly, the FH cannot lift quite as much as the SLS (63 metric tons to Low Earth Orbit vs 95), but SpaceX's reusable BFR [wikipedia.org] is currently slated to have a 100 metric ton payload to LEO capability.
So, I have to ask: What can the SLS accomplish that one or more FH/BFR launches cannot?