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Core stage intertank
A structural test version of the intertank for NASA’s new deep-space rocket, the Space Launch System, arrives at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in March for testing aboard the barge Pegasus. The intertank is the second piece of structural hardware for the massive SLS core stage. (NASA Photo)

NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket that’s being designed to send astronauts to the moon and Mars, seems likely to miss the schedule for its first test launch in 2020 due to poor management by Boeing and its overseers, the space agency’s auditors say.

A report released today by the NASA Office of Inspector General projects that the delivery of the first Boeing-built core stage for the heavy-lift SLS rocket may slip beyond its currently scheduled date of December 2019. What’s more, the cost of SLS development is on track to amount to at least $8.9 billion, which is twice what was originally budgeted, the auditors say.

“Boeing’s cost and schedule challenges are likely to worsen, given that the SLS has yet to undergo its ‘Green Run Test’ — a major milestone that integrates and tests the Core Stage components,” NASA said in a summary of the report.

To meet the schedule for an uncrewed test flight around the moon by 2020, followed by a crewed flight in 2022 and the development of a new upper-stage booster for flights after that, the SLS program will have to be given a “major increase in funding” and renegotiate NASA’s contract with Boeing, the report says.

Much of the blame was laid on mismanagement at Boeing. “For example, Boeing officials have consistently underestimated the scope of the work to be performed and thus the size and skills of the workforce required,” the auditors said. They added that equipment-related mishaps and a tornado that hit NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana last year contributed to the schedule and cost problems.

NASA’s managers for the SLS program also came in for criticism.

The report says managers combined the cost analyses for the first two SLS core stages and the advanced version of the upper stage, which made it harder to track the separate projects. It says managers gave Boeing overly generous ratings on the completion of contractual milestones, resulting in nearly $64 million in questionable award fees since 2012. And it says NASA officials made modifications to contracts without proper authorization, exposing the agency to an extra $321 million in commitments.

“Finally, as NASA and Boeing struggle with completing the first two SLS core stages, the agency’s plans are on hold for acquiring additional core stages,” NASA’s auditors said.

Because of the estimated 52-month lead time for delivery, that suggests the third core stage may not be available until 2023. The report says that could cause schedule problems for the SLS’ first crewed flight test, known as Exploration Mission-2 or EM-2 — as well as a robotic mission to study Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter.

“To its credit, the SLS program has taken positive steps to address management and procurement issues related to the Boeing Stages contract, including making key leadership changes; requesting reviews of Boeing’s management, financial, and estimating systems; adding routine, in-depth performance reviews; and changing the procurement process to improve internal controls,” the auditors say. “However, the impact of these actions on improving Boeing’s future contract performance is uncertain.”

The report includes seven recommendations to tighten up oversight of the SLS core-stage contract. NASA accepted most of the recommendations, but didn’t go along with the request to revise Boeing’s performance ratings. The auditors also said they weren’t satisfied with the way NASA responded to a recommendation for a corrective action plan.

In his response, NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier traced the problems turned up by the audit to “first-time production technical challenges,” and said those problems have been largely resolved.

Boeing struck a similar tone, saying that the project involved the “inherent challenges” associated with building the first item of its kind — challenges that have now been addressed. “The program described in the OIG’s report does not represent the Space Launch System program today.” Boeing said in a statement.

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