Massive overruns in the SLS mobile launch platform have been revealed by a NASA audit

The Space Launch System (SLS), a 2-stage, heavy-lift rocket that will propel the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) into space, is critical to NASA’s aims of maintaining a human presence on the Moon as well as future exploration of Mars. At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, two mobile launchers are being developed to serve as the ground structure for assembling, processing, transporting to the launch pad, and launching various versions of the integrated SLS/Orion system. The launchers have a two-story base structure that serves as the SLS’s platform, as well as a tower with connection lines, launch accessories, and a walkway for staff, equipment, and astronauts.

According to a NASA audit, a new mobile launch platform that Bechtel is creating for NASA may cost up to 4 times as much as initially intended, delaying the maiden launch of an updated edition of the Space Launch System until the late 2020s.

The audit, which was released on June 9, was harshly critical of both Bechtel and, to a smaller extent, NASA for cost overruns and delays in construction on the Mobile Launcher (ML) 2, which will be utilized for deployments of the Block 1B version of the SLS beginning with the Artemis 4 mission. The larger Block 1B cannot fit on the existing SLS mobile launch platform.

In June 2019, NASA granted Bechtel a $383 million cost-plus deal to develop and manufacture the ML-2, which is expected to be delivered to NASA in March 2023. Because of “government-driven adjustments” that pushed out the platform’s delivery to January 2024, the contract ballooned to $460.3 million in March.

However, as shown in the audit, the project has had major overruns and delays since then. Bechtel’s estimate of the final cost of ML-2 has risen to $960.1 million, or 2.5 times the initial contract amount, as of February. According to this estimate, ML-2 will be completed in October of 2025, after which it will undergo over a year of testing as well as other preparations before being ready for the Artemis 4 deployment.

However, according to the audit, a shared confidence level analysis, that NASA employs to predict the probability of finishing a project within a given budget and schedule, estimated only a 3.9 percent chance of completing ML-2 within the revised budget and timeline. ML-2 would cost roughly $1.5 billion and not be deployed until November 2027, according to an independent study committee commissioned by the Kennedy Space Center. Artemis 4’s release date would be pushed back from 2027 to no sooner than the close of 2028.

Bechtel was held responsible for a large part of the cost overruns, according to the audit. According to the audit, “poor contractor performance” was responsible for more than 70% of the cost rise and 60% of the roadmap delay.

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