A US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has raised concerns that current cost growth estimates for the Space Launch System (SLS) are understated. NASA currently acknowledges SLS program cost growth of around $1 billion, while the GAO report estimates it could be as much as $1.8 billion.
On June 19, the GAO released a report entitled NASA Human Space Exploration: Persistent Dalys and Cost Growth Reinforce Concerns over Management of Programs. The report details the persistent cost and development overruns of the Orion, SLS, and related systems projects. It also raises concerns over more than $200 million in contractor performance-related fees paid between 2014 and 2018 despite the delays.
Although the GAO report took aim at Orion too, the bulk of the focus was aimed at the SLS program. It noted that although NASA has acknowledged $1 billion in cost overruns, the amount is understated. This is due to the fact that the agency has shifted a portion of the SLS scope to future missions without reducing the program’s cost baseline accordingly. When the revised baseline is taken into consideration cost growth is closer to $1.8 billion, or 29% of the total cost of the program.
In addition to cost growth, the report also questions NASA’s proposed launch date of the maiden SLS mission. Currently, the agency has projected a June 2020 launch date. However, the GAO report notes that “any issues uncovered during planned integration and testing may push the launch date as late as June 2021.”
Much like the SLS program, the development of the Orion spacecraft has also suffered cost growth and development delays. The report indicates that the program is significantly more over budget than the 5.6 percent NASA has estimated. This is largely due to the fact that NASA has calculated the cost growth assuming a launch date that is 7 months earlier than the baseline launch date. As a result, the program is likely significantly more over budget.
As a result of the Orion and SLS cost and development overruns and overruns of several other flagship projects, the GAO has placed NASA’s acquisition management on its high-risk list.