NASA has publicly acknowledged a widely held belief that their Space Launch System (SLS) Program is facing significant affordability issues.
This revelation comes in the wake of a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an agency tasked with scrutinizing the efficient allocation of US taxpayer funds.
In this comprehensive report, NASA’s transparency concerning the actual costs of the SLS rocket program is brought into question.
The GAO’s Report
The report, published on Thursday and available in PDF format, delves into the considerable investments NASA has made in the development of this colossal rocket.
The SLS made its successful debut launch in late 2022, marking a milestone with the Artemis I Mission. However, surprisingly, within the context of this report, NASA officials have admitted that the rocket’s costs have spiraled to unsustainable levels, particularly for the Lunar Exploration endeavors under the Artemis program.
The report explicitly quotes Senior NASA Officials as stating:
“At current cost levels, the SLS program is unaffordable.”
This assertion casts a cloud of uncertainty over the financial feasibility of NASA’s ambitious Lunar Exploration efforts.
A key concern highlighted by the Government Accountability Office pertains to NASA’s methodology for assessing production costs related to SLS rocket components, including core stages and rocket engines required for future launches.
Rather than actively measuring these production costs, NASA’s plan appears to hinge on “monitoring production costs and affordability of the SLS program via the five-year production and operations cost estimate”. However, the report deems this approach as inadequate, labeling these estimates as “poor tools” for establishing a solid cost baseline for the SLS program.
This lack of precision is disconcerting as it obstructs taxpayers’ ability to gauge expenses and assess the performance of both NASA and its associated contractors over time.
Furthermore, the report raises concerns about the infrequency of updates to NASA’s five-year production cost estimates for the SLS rocket and its associated hardware, such as the Exploration Upper Stage.
Accounting For Delays
Another glaring issue with NASA’s cost estimates is their apparent omission of any provisions for potential delays to Artemis Missions.
It is increasingly likely that the Artemis II Mission, a crewed flight circumnavigating the Moon, will not take off until at least 2025. As for the Artemis III crewed landing, this mission may be postponed to at least 2026, with the possibility of further delays.
NASA’s response to these delays appears to defy logic, with some officials asserting that they would have no cost implications—an assertion that the report disputes vehemently. The report contends that changes in the schedule of Artemis missions should inevitably impact the SLS program’s cost estimate, with one NASA official acknowledging a shift in the Artemis IV mission from 2026 to 2028.
NASA has not been deaf to these financial concerns, as evidenced by statements from agency officials interviewed by the Government Accountability Office. The report notes, “NASA recognizes the need to improve the affordability of the SLS program and is taking steps to do so”. Senior NASA officials themselves have conceded that, at current cost levels, the SLS program exceeds the anticipated budget available for its Artemis Missions.
The Plan Ahead
To address these issues, NASA has outlined a four-step plan to curtail the escalating costs of the SLS rocket program:
- Stabilize the flight schedule
- Achieve learning curve efficiencies
- Encourage innovation
- Adjust acquisition strategies to mitigate cost risk
While these strategies may appear promising, the report remains cautious, characterizing them as aspirational objectives at this stage.
It underscores the absence of specific program-level cost-saving targets defined by NASA, adding that while progress has been made in implementing these strategies, it remains too early to comprehensively evaluate their impact on cost containment.
The question looms: Can NASA effectively limit the escalating costs of the SLS program? Despite commendable efforts to address cost concerns, skepticism persists.
For instance, NASA’s recent claim of collaborating with Aerojet, the primary contractor for the SLS rocket’s main engines, to achieve a 30 percent cost reduction per engine, down to $70.5 million by the end of the decade, has been met with skepticism. Critics argue that this claim lacks transparency, as it allegedly excludes project management and overhead costs from the calculation of cost savings for the new RS-25 engines.
Even if NASA achieves this target, the cost of these engines remains significantly higher than those available in the existing US commercial market for powerful rocket engines.
Blue Origin, for instance, produces a comparably powerful and sized engine, the BE-4, for less than $20 million. Meanwhile, SpaceX has set ambitious goals to further reduce the cost of the equally powerful Raptor Rocket engine to less than $1 million per unit.
These figures underscore the magnitude of the financial challenge NASA faces in its quest to make the SLS program financially viable.