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GAO finds that NASA's heavy lift Space Launch System is $400 million short

Space Launch System
Space Launch System
NASA (public domain)

The General Accounting Office released a report on Wednesday on NASA’s heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System. Among its core findings is that the project is in serious jeopardy of failing to meet its planned December, 2017 initial launch date. The problem is entirely budgetary as the SLS is about $400 million short of reaching its goal.

The GAO report stressed that the SLS is making “solid progress” in developing the heavy lift rocket design. It did find, however, that problems loom integrating certain hardware, such as the strap on solid rocket boosters originally designed for the Ares launch vehicles envisioned for the Constellation program. President Obama cancelled that program in 2010.

The GAO report offered a number of recommendations. It suggested that NASA either find the extra money needed or delay the first launch of the SLS past the December, 2017 date. It suggested employing some competitive bidding for future elements of the rocket. It suggested that NASA provide Congress with a full range of mission options for the SLS with a view of providing guidance for the rocket’s development.

The report highlights a reoccurring problem that has plagued NASA since the space shuttle project, which has been unrealistic funding estimates for major projects. This tendency has resulted in cost overruns, schedule slippages, and even cancellation in the past. Congress and the White House have compounded the problem by failing to exercise proper oversight and allocating the needed resources for development projects at the space agency.

It is very unlikely that the Space Launch System will be cancelled. It is the only realistic option for sending American astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the foreseeable future. But Congress and the White House have committed to such a program, though there is disagreement as two what the destination might be. But the GAO report does provide Congress with a stark choice. It can provide the SLS with adequate funding to keep its schedule intact or it can see its schedule slip and its overall cost increase in the long run.