NASA’s SLS rocket needs a second mobile launch vehicle costing $1 billion

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NASA's SLS rocket needs a second mobile launch vehicle costing $1 billion

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For years, NASA has struggled with rising costs for the rockets and spacecraft it plans to use to send astronauts to the moon. Now it’s having significant problems with an obscure but vital piece of hardware used to transport and launch the rocket: a truss tower known as a mobile launcher.

In a damning report released Thursday, NASA’s inspector general said a second version of the mobile launcher, needed for a larger version of the rocket, is expected to cost at least $1 billion — more than double the original order value NASA awarded in 2019. IG said construction would take another 2½ years.

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 mount another rocket, the SLS.

That mobile launch tower will need to be replaced after only three missions, however, as NASA plans to use a different version of the SLS for later trips to the moon, one with a more powerful upper stage that would add about 40 feet to the rocket’s altitude in its Artemis -Lunar campaign. The later version of the SLS will be able to bring 40 percent more payload to the lunar surface.

The added cost of the launch tower and the expected delay were just one of many problems the inspector general identified with the program. Primary blame was laid on contractor Bechtel for its “poor performance” and “underestimation of the scope and complexity of the ML-2 project.” ML-2 is short for Mobile Launcher 2.

Bechtel officials told IG that part of the increase in costs was due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company went through several management teams and saw significant sales. At one point, according to the IG report, company officials at NASA said they “are not designers and don’t typically do these types of designs.”

In a statement, Bechtel spokesman Fred deSousa said the company was “committed to successfully delivering the launch vehicle.”

“The project has experienced significant cost and time growth beyond the original good faith estimates, which did not take into account the project complexity and necessary changes resulting from the parallel design development of all launch systems,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Inspector General’s report does not provide a full picture of what led to the current situation, and we strongly disagree with the report’s overarching conclusions on the root causes of the cost increases.”

IG also noted that “NASA’s management practices contributed to the project’s cost increases and schedule delays.” So the space agency awarded the contract to Bechtel before the final design for the rocket’s improved upper stage was ready.

The report also says that despite Bechtel’s lackluster work, NASA awarded the company $8.2 million in awards for good work.

The cost overruns could continue, IG warned, as NASA has already spent $435.6 million on the project and construction has yet to begin. It said an analysis showed just a 3.9 percent confidence level in the $1 billion price tag and it could grow to $1.5 billion.

The SLS rocket, which will be used in the first Artemis mission, is back on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, where it is scheduled to undergo a second series of refueling and countdown tests.

An earlier test was canceled after NASA discovered a defective 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 later this year without humans on board.

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