Nasa Audit: Sls Rocket Unlikely To Launch In ’18
NASA’s new deep space rocket and capsule probably won’t be ready for a planned first launch from Kennedy Space Center next year, the agency’s internal auditors reported Thursday (April 13).
Technical and budget challenges also will likely delay the Space Launch System rocket’s first launch of astronauts in an Orion capsule beyond 2021, according to NASA’s Inspector General.
“NASA faces a host of formidable challenges as it develops plans for human exploration of Mars,” the report concludes. “The technical challenges are unprecedented and the costs enormous with even austere budget estimates totaling more than $400 billion by the time a second visit to the Martian surface is completed in the 2040s.”
Delays to major human spaceflight projects would not be surprising. They come, however, as the new Trump administration is crafting its first detailed budget plan and is eager to see an exciting mission launch in its first four-year term.
The delays also come as privately owned SpaceX aims to launch paying customers around the moon next year and claims it will try to send people to Mars in the next decade. NASA recently began studying whether it is possible to launch a crew on the 322-foot SLS rocket’s first flight.
For now, the agency is targeting a launch by November 2018 of the SLS and Orion on an unmanned test flight called Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1. Astronauts would fly on the next mission, EM-2, no later than 2023, although NASA has said it is working toward a more aggressive 2021 goal.
But technical issues and a lack of budget reserves have left almost no margin for error to pull off that schedule, auditors said, despite more than $23 billion spent on the exploration systems since 2006.
“NASA’s first exploration missions — EM-1 and EM-2 — face multiple challenges that will likely delay their launch,” the report states. The missions “are not likely to launch by 2018 or 2021, respectively,” it continues.
When might a crew launch? Hard to say.
The report says incomplete NASA information makes it “more difficult for both the agency and external stakeholders to gain a full understanding of the costs of that mission or to assess the validity of the agency’s launch date assumptions.”
The early missions are the start of systems that NASA expects to fly for decades during its “Journey to Mars.” The exact timing and cost of any individual mission may be less important than the development of systems seen as affordable and sustainable over the long haul.
The report notes that NASA has few specific plans for what missions will fly after the first two, and that numerous systems must begin development in the 2020s to enable a mission orbiting Mars in the following decade. Examples include a habitation module and propulsion to get to Mars, and eventually a lander, ascent vehicle and surface habitat.
A key decision will be whether to extend International Space Station operations beyond 2024, at a cost of $3 billion to $4 billion a year that might otherwise be focused on Mars hardware.
The audit credits NASA for an incremental approach building systems only as they are needed, and with keeping doors open to international and commercial partnerships and technology advances that might reduce exploration costs.
NASA’s human exploration initiative consists of three major programs: the SLS rocket, Orion crew capsule, and Ground Systems Development and Operations program, or GSDO, based at KSC.
KSC is preparing facilities including the Vehicle Assembly Building, a mobile launch tower and launch pad 39B to launch the new rocket and capsule, and related software.
The audit found that KSC has “only one month of schedule margin to deal with any further issues that arise” before the targeted November 2018 launch date.
GSDO’s projected $2.8 billion cost to get ready for the first SLS launch is $400 million above what NASA estimated in 2011, and the program “has identified a budget shortfall” for the work necessary before the second launch, when the SLS will fly with a new upper stage. Source: Florida Today