NASA watchdog takes aim at Boeing’s SLS rocket; it says Trump’s moon mission could cost a staggering $50 billion

The report, by the NASA Inspector General, painted another grim picture of the troubles that have long plagued the Space Launch System rocket as Boeing, NASA’s prime contractor on the rocket, struggles to get the unwieldy program under control. It said that more schedule delays were likely and that the space agency might not be able to meet the goal of landing people on the moon by 2024 or orbiting Mars by the 2030s.

It was the second time in less than a week that Boeing’s work for NASA has been criticized. On Friday, NASA officials said an investigation of the marred test flight of the company’s Starliner spacecraft in December, when the spacecraft was unable to dock with the International Space Station, had identified major problems with Boeing’s testing procedures. Officials said the investigation led to 61 corrective actions and identified 49 gaps in Boeing’s testing procedures. NASA also determined that it would need to embed its own software experts with Boeing’s team to more rigorously oversee its work and testing.

The new IG report blames both NASA’s lax oversight of the program and Boeing’s poor performance for costly delays that would ratchet up the price beyond the $35 billion NASA previously had said it would cost to land astronauts on the moon by 2024. Earlier this year, the White House proposed increasing NASA’s budget significantly, to $25.2 billion for the next fiscal year, with annual increases after that.

NASA has so far obligated nearly $15 billion for the development of the SLS rocket, which is intended to be the most powerful ever flown. But its first launch, scheduled for November, is likely to slip to spring of 2021, the report said. If that happens, the cost would jump to $18.3 billion, the IG said.

And if the second launch of the SLS slips to 2023, the cost of the program would increase to $22.8 billion, the IG reported.

When you add the costs of the Orion spacecraft and the associated ground systems, the total cost could balloon to $50 billion by 2024, the IG found.

Every major component of the rocket being designed for the first Artemis mission has “experienced technical challenges, performance issues and requirement changes that collectively have resulted in $2 billion in cost overruns and increases and at least two years of schedule delays,” the report said.

In a statement, Boeing defended its work and promised that the delays would pay off in the end.

“In partnership with NASA, Boeing is building the only rocket capable of safely and efficiently delivering humans and necessary hardware back to the moon, and far beyond,” the statement said. “Such an undertaking has certainly had its cost and schedule challenges over the years, but the investment has paid off in bringing together the required talent, technology and tooling to build this unprecedented deep space rocket.”

The company said it was making progress, delivering the first rocket core stage to NASA last month. And it said that the “hard-earned experience acquired during initial SLS development is resulting in significant savings and efficiencies in subsequent development and production.”

A NASA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in an appendix to the report, NASA concurred with each of the IG’s recommendations, including getting better insight into the true costs of the program.

NASA has “significantly increased the workforce” to complete the core stage of the rocket, the IG found. But it said the agency “continues to struggle managing SLS program costs and schedule as the launch date for the first integrated SLS/Orion mission slips further.”

As the rocket enters a key testing phase, there may be additional delays. And the IG said, that “may hinder NASA’s ability to meet the agency’s mid and longer term space exploration goals, including landing on the moon by 2024 and reaching Mars in the 2030s.”

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