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NASA’s moon rocket launch is delayed another year after billions in cost overruns, audit finds

The first Artemis rocket stage is guided toward NASA's Pegasus barge Jan. 8 ahead of its forthcoming journey to NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss. (NASA/TNS)

This won’t be SLS’ year.

NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, designed to be the most powerful of all time to return astronauts to the moon, was supposed to fly on its first mission in November after years of delays and cost overruns under a program known as Artemis.

But a NASA Office of the Inspector General audit released Tuesday found the program is still struggling to stay on track, even after cash infusions and increased pressure to get boots on the moon by 2024 — a major goal of President Donald Trump. The report is the latest in a string of audits by the inspector general that has consistently warned about the breadth of challenges within the program.

Now, the earliest SLS will fly is likely spring 2021, a delay that the audit predicts will cost the space agency another $1.4 billion.

By the end of this fiscal year, the audit estimates that NASA will have spent more than $17 billion on the program — a 60% increase from the agency’s original projection of $10.2 billion set in 2014. By the spring of 2021, total program costs will be hovering around $18.3 billion.

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The delays continue to put the president’s already ambitious goal of a 2024 landing instead of a lunar landing in 2028, as originally planned, on perilous ground. The second mission, which will carry crew on a lunar flyby, is supposed to take off in October 2022, followed by the moon landing flight at the end of 2024.

“Going forward, expected delays resulting from upcoming testing and integration events, along with new Artemis lunar plans, may hinder NASA’s ability to meet the agency’s mid- and longer-term space exploration goals, including landing on the moon in 2024 and reaching Mars in the 2030s,” the audit found.

Across the board, every part of the program, from the booster to the engine development, has experienced technical challenges, performance issues and requirement changes that have contributed collectively to $2 billion in cost overruns and at least two years of setbacks.

In particular, Boeing’s “poor performance” has been a major factor, the audit found. The company is building the core stage for the rocket, which was delivered in January to Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to begin a series of important tests known as the Green Run. The test was almost scrapped, until NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine decided to retain the requirement for the first version of the rocket as it was the only opportunity to test it in conditions that simulate flight.

NASA and Boeing have also made changes to get Boeing across the finish line. NASA has increased its requirement for updates and implemented a process for separating costs for each core stage, allowing it to better track cost overruns associated with the project. Boeing has also made management changes at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where it’s building the rocket’s stages, to address challenges quicker. Boeing has implemented a horizontal joining process to speed up production for the core stage by about four months.

Concerns remain about quality control for Boeing. An October review by the Defense Contract Management Agency, the federal agency responsible for administering government contracts, found, among other issues, that Boeing left foreign objects inside parts of SLS’ core stage and that the company bypassed mandatory inspection points. As a result, Boeing paused all work for two days in October and brought in additional personnel to develop a corrective action plan, the results of which won’t be assessed for at least a year.

Elsewhere in Boeing, the company is struggling with testing challenges that failed to catch multiple code errors in its astronaut capsule, Starliner, which Boeing developed for another NASA program to take astronauts to the International Space Station.

An independent investigation into the problems with Starliner found 49 gaps in testing and has issued 61 corrective actions that NASA will likely implement across its human spaceflight programs, like Artemis, to the degree there is crossover. Many of Boeing’s issues were related to software, which isn’t the main problem with SLS, said Douglas Loverro, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations during a press call last week.

“We are we are making sure that we look across all of those teams and across all of our NASA teams to make sure we don’t have similar issues as we discovered on (Starliner’s test flight)” Loverro said.

As for NASA, much of the audit’s suggestions centered on creating better processes for tracking cost increases and ensuring personnel are assigned to track contractor performance. The audit also specifically tasked NASA with notifying Congress that the program had exceeded its cost and schedule baselines by 33% by the end of fiscal 2019, which will lead NASA to re-baseline the costs and timeline for the program.

NASA concurred with most of the report’s findings in a letter from Loverro and Thomas Whitmeyer, acting deputy associate administrator of the Exploration Systems Development program, to the inspector general dated March 5, noting it has carried out many recommendations from a 2018 audit on Boeing’s stages contract, in particular.

“NASA has made significant improvements since 2018, and the agency is committed to continuing improvements in sustainability, accountability and transparency in its Exploration Systems Development Program,” Loverro and Whitmeyer said.

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© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.