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GAO Warns NASA $400 Million Short to Finish SLS by 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jul-2014
Updated: 23-Jul-2014 07:27 PM

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) praised NASA's technical progress in building the Space Launch System (SLS) in a report released today, but warned that the agency does not have enough funding to complete the rocket in time for its promised first flight in 2017.

GAO pointed out that most NASA programs are required to have a funding and schedule profile that affords at least a 70 percent chance of success -- a "joint confidence level" or JCL -- and SLS does not have that.  The program may be $400 million short of what it needs in order to be ready for the first test launch in 2017 at a 70 percent confidence level, GAO concluded using analysis by the SLS program itself.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden conceded in a Senate hearing earlier this year that NASA is not using the 70 percent confidence level for SLS.  In a colloquy with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), SLS's strongest supporter in the Senate (it is being built in Alabama), Bolden said: "You can't fund enough to get SLS to a 70 percent JCL and I don't want you to do that, I'm not asking for that, that would be unrealistic."  He told Shelby he had enough money to be ready to launch in 2017, but also hedged by saying "in fiscal year 2018."  Only the first three months of FY2018 are in calendar year 2017 (October-December).   Bolden said that he is comfortable with not meeting a 70 percent JCL because SLS relies on mature technology.

SLS is being developed pursuant to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress on the one hand, and the Obama Administration on the other.  SLS and its Orion spacecraft are intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  The 2017 version of SLS will be able to place 70 metric tons into LEO.  Two enhanced versions are planned for the future capable of 105 tons and 130 tons.  In some respects SLS/Orion replaces the Bush-era Constellation program; in others it is much the same -- developing a big rocket and a spacecraft to take people to Mars someday.

NASA plans to spend $12 billion on SLS and associated ground systems through the 2017 launch, GAO said, and "potentially billions more" for the future variants.

The first test flight is supposed to take place in 2017.  The next flight would not be until 2021.  That would be the first to carry a crew aboard an Orion spacecraft. Noting that NASA has not developed plans for SLS beyond that flight, GAO concluded that presents opportunities "to improve long term affordability through competition" to build other elements of the system, such as an improved upper stage.

In today's report, GAO recommends that NASA "develop an executable business case for SLS that matches resources to requirements, and provide to the Congress an assessment of the SLS elements that could be competitively procured for future SLS variants before finalizing acquisition plans for those variants."   It adds that "NASA concurred" with the recommendations.


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