NASA Inspector General Blames Rocket Engine Contract Mishandling For Artemis Moon Program Problems

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NASA Inspector General Blames Rocket Engine Contract Mishandling For Artemis Moon Program Problems

The NASA Space Launch System (SLS).

Image credit: NASA.

NASA’s Artemis Moon program is six years behind schedule and over budget by at least $6 billion due to the space agency’s mismanagement of rocket engine contracts.

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That’s according to the findings of a new report released May 25 by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which investigates NASA’s programs to prevent waste and fraud. OIG audited NASA contracts to purchase powerful RS-25 rocket motors and boosters for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which finally made its first test flight in November after four years of delays .

That flight also propelled an uncrewed Orion spacecraft en route to the Moon and back on the first mission of the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the lunar surface by 2025 and establish a long-term presence there by 2028. ‘SLS is a keystone of the Artemis program architecture.

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But the Artemis program comes at a high cost. So far, the program has cost about $93 billion in total from its inception in 2012 through fiscal 2025, 26 percent ($23.8 billion) of which is due to the SLS rocket. And the whole project might have gone ahead if not for mismanagement, according to the OIG report Congress originally instructed NASA to launch the first SLS flight by 2016.

If $93 billion seems like a lot to pay for a program six years late, it’s because it’s a lot, says Laura Forczyk, a space industry consultant and founder of the company Astralytical.

But “I wouldn’t say this is particularly surprising,” she said SpaceRef. “Reports have been coming out for years about how late everything is, including these RS-25 engines, and how much they cost overdue.”

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NASA management agreed to implement a number of OIG recommendations to reduce costs and improve forward efficiency, but ultimately Forczyk suggested that the responsibility lies with whoever controls the purse strings, not NASA or NASA. ‘OIG, but Congress.

The SLS is a super heavy rocket capable of delivering 27 tons of payload to the Moon in its current configuration (subsequent Artemis missions will use more powerful variants). To get that mass off the ground, SLS requires two solid-fuel rocket thrusters and four RS-25 liquid hydrogen-liquid-oxygen engines per launch.

That configuration may seem reminiscent of the Space Shuttle, which would make sense because the SLS uses shuttle technology: The RS-25 engines are the same ones used for the shuttle, and leftover steel casings from the shuttle were used in the thrusters. solid rocket. Naturally, both components have since been upgraded: NASA contracted Aerojet Rocketdyne to upgrade the engines, while Northrop Grumman made changes to the steel casings.

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“The idea was to refurbish the space shuttle’s main engines which would cost less than designing and building brand new engines,” Forczyk said. “It didn’t happen that way.”

So far, Aerojet Rocketdyne has completed only five of 16 RS-25 engine adaptations contracted by NASA, and unforeseen technical difficulties have also increased the costs of booster rocket development, according to OIG’s Artemis audit. The retrofits and production of engines and boosters were expected to cost NASA about $7 billion over 14 years, according to the report, but will now cost at least $13.1 billion over 25 years.

NASA incurred these higher costs due to the type of contract it signed with the two companies. NASA has cost-plus (rather than fixed-cost) contracts with Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne. In a fixed cost contract, a bidder agrees to deliver the goods at a set price and to incur any costs beyond that amount.

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“Whereas with the cost-plus, the government pays for the additional cost overruns,” Forczyk explained. “It’s really meant for cutting-edge technology where they don’t have a good estimate from the outset of what the total cost is going to be.”

NASA recently announced a $3.4 billion fixed-cost contract with Blue Origin to build a lunar landing vehicle for the Artemis V mission, as well as NASA’s $4.2 billion Commercial Crew contract with Boeing to build the Strainer spacecraft for flights to and from the ISS has been resolved. price, a fact that could cause serious headaches for Boeing as the Starliner program languishes due to technical issues that have caused further delays through June 1.

To get the Artemis program back on track, the OIG issued eight recommendations to NASA management. The first is to try to roll over the Aerojet Rocketdyne contract for the production of 18 new RS-25 engines on fixed price terms. The report also recommends to NASA:

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  1. Identify the procurement needs and resources available to address staffing shortages at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
  2. Ensure Marshall officers follow best practices in establishing and maintaining internal controls related to REAs, tax laws, and appropriate internal and external engagement.
  3. Ensure proper separation of program actions and procurements and compliance with federal requirements for the use of letter contracts, proper definition, overpayments, and duplicate award fee payments for scope and modified contracts.
  4. Updates RS-25 production cost estimates per engine to include investments to restart production.
  5. Review and update [the rocket booster production and operations contract] scope of work and technical requirements needed to complete the respective performance periods.
  6. Revision [the rocket booster production and operations contract] definition to ensure proper settlement of funds paid under the letter agreement.
  7. Develop separate no-fee contract line for completion of 11 unfinished heritage RS-25 fit engines.

NASA management “agreed with Recommendations 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7, and partially agreed with Recommendations 4, 5 and 8,” the OIG wrote in the report, “and thus the recommendations were resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions.”

But it remains to be seen how serious NASA is about making serious changes to the SLS program. Forczyk emphasized that the SLS contract is set up to distribute federal funding to important districts to support members of Congress, not to produce a rocket as efficiently as possible. And as long as those congressmen support Artemis and SLS, there’s little incentive to change, and the OIG report probably won’t make much difference to Artemis.

“This is business as usual. This will not be seen by Congress as a justification for changing the program at this point,” Froczyk said SpaceRef. “It could be used as a justification to change the schedule at a later date if SLS falls out of favor, but at this point it’s still so politically popular that this will just be accepted as fact.”

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