NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket cost the space agency $6 billion more than its original budget and is six years behind schedule, a shocking report recently revealed. The massive rocket is designed to return humans to the Moon, but could end up jeopardizing the space agency’s lunar program as funds run low.
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The office of NASA’s inspector general released its final report on Thursday, auditing the space agency’s management of the contracts for the SLS rocket and its engines. The report found that NASA’s overall investment in its Artemis Moon program is projected to reach $93 billion from 2012 through 2025, of which the costs of SLS alone represent $23.8 billion spent through 2022. That’s $6 billion in cost increases for the rocket, in addition to six years in schedule delays above NASA’s original projections, the report stated. The inspector general performed its audit from February 2022 through April 2023.
The SLS rocket launched on November 16, 2022 for the Artemis 1 mission, sending an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon and back. NASA’s 5.75-million-pound rocket is outfitted with four RS-25 engines originally built by Aerojet Rocketdyne for the Space Shuttle project, which operated from 1981 to 2011. NASA has a total of four contracts with Aerojet Rocketdyne for the RS-25 engines and Northrop Grumman for the boosters, which were also used during the Shuttle era.
NASA salvaged 16 RS-25 engines from retired Space Shuttles, of which four were used during Artemis 1. Once these run out, the space agency will switch to RS-25E engines currently being built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, which cost 30% less than the originals, but provide 111% of rated thrust. SLS is completely expendable, including its engines.
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The report blamed the cost increases on “assumptions that the use of heritage technologies from the Space Shuttle and Constellation Programs were expected to result in significant cost and schedule savings compared to developing new systems for the SLS.” Instead, integrating new systems with the older components ended up being more complex, according to the report.
NASA is trying to decrease SLS costs moving forward, with the projected 30 percent price dip per engine, “however, those savings do not capture overhead and other costs,” the report stated. Each rocket launch requires four engines and two boosters; one RS-25 engine currently costs around $100 million to manufacture and NASA wants to keep sending crews to the Moon to establish a lunar presence. The Artemis 2 mission is currently slated for launch in late 2024, while Artemis 3 is meant to follow in 2025 or 2026.
The projected cost of each SLS rocket has gone over budget by $144 million through Artemis 4, increasing the overall cost of a single Artemis launch to at least $4.2 billion, according to the report. As a result, the 50-page report includes a direct warning to the space agency’s lunar ambitions.
“Without greater attention to these important safeguards, NASA and its contracts will continue to exceed planned cost and schedule, resulting in a reduced availability of funds, delayed launches, and the erosion of the public’s trust in the Agency’s ability to responsibly spend taxpayer money and meet mission goals and objectives—including returning humans safely to the Moon and onward to Mars,” the report stated.
NASA’s mega-rocket appears to have gotten it in mega-trouble, resulting in a scathing report that accuses the space agency of oversight and lack of transparency. It’s not yet clear whether or how the Artemis program will suffer as a result.
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