NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and associated ground infrastructure have soared past original cost estimates to a degree that requires the agency to notify Congress about the ballooning budget.
The recently appointed leader of NASA's human spaceflight efforts, Kathy Lueders, announced the new cost estimates in a blog post published on Aug. 27.
"The new development baseline cost for SLS is $9.1 billion, and the commitment for the initial ground-systems capability to support the [rocket's first] mission is now $2.4 billion," Lueders wrote, without elaborating on what the previous baseline costs were. Congress had previously approved a $7 billion commitment for the SLS' development, according to 2019 fiscal numbers.
The first launch of SLS is scheduled to be Artemis 1, a test flight to send an uncrewed spacecraft around the moon in November 2021 in preparation for a 2024 moon landing. Lueders wrote that the Artemis 1 mission remains on track so far, although the agency is cautious due to the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic that has forced physical distancing and, in some cases, led to shortages of parts in the space industry.
"A successful Green Run hot-fire test will enable us to better predict a target launch date for the mission," she wrote. She also noted that future rocket development should proceed more smoothly, and that the Orion spacecraft to carry astronauts remains on track for a test mission to lunar orbit in November 2023.
"We are well into builds for future missions, and we are seeing significantly improved build rates, high-quality work, and efficiencies across the board," she wrote. "Moving forward, we aim to continue to reduce production costs for the world's most capable launch system, as we take on new challenges of our lunar exploration program."
Back in April, according to Space News, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report assessing NASA's major programs put the estimated development cost of SLS at $8.75 billion and the ground infrastructure, called Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), at $2.33 billion. (Both figures are estimates from January, which were only published in April.). The new figures represent slight increases over the GAO estimates.
But NASA is more likely comparing the new numbers to its baseline 2014 estimates for the SLS and EKG programs. According to Space News, SLS was then expected to cost $7.02 billion and EGS $1.84 billion; the new estimates represent an approximately 30% increase over the 2014 numbers..
In a report published in March, NASA's Office of Inspector General did warn that the SLS program probably had exceeded the 30% budget overage rate threshold that mandates notifying Congress. The report added that NASA had not adjusted its baseline cost estimate back then to account for removing about $1 billion in costs related to SLS's solid rocket boosters and RS-25 engines.
According to Space News, Congress is unlikely to make major changes to either the SLS or EGS programs due to the notification. While the Senate has yet to take up the House's appropriations bill dealing with SLS and EGS, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), has advocated for SLS in the past. Further, the House appropriated more money for SLS and EGS than the administration asked for, at $343 million more and $75 million more respectively.
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