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NASA's Orion launch faces further delays as new problems emerge with rocket development

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The long-awaited launch of Orion — the spacecraft being built by NASA to take Americans back to the moon — likely won’t be ready for the planned mid-2020 lift-off because of cost and scheduling problems with the rocket that will send it into space.

The delay, described Wednesday in a report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General, is the second setback this week for the space agency, which reported Monday that the Hubble Space Telescope had been temporarily shut down because of a mechanical failure that crippled the groundbreaking observatory.


The report concluded that NASA would need to spend an additional $1.2 billion if it wants Orion to launch in June 2020 as planned. The report did not provide a new launch date for the Space Launch System rocket, which has already been delayed multiple times.


“We have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its (Exploration Mission-1) launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020,” according to the OIG report.

NASA, however, remained optimistic that the Orion launch will go off as planned.

“NASA has made significant progress on SLS, including core stage production, and the agency continues to plan for the launch of Exploration Mission-1 in 2020, but there are still technical and schedule risks,” said Kathryn Hambleton, NASA spokeswoman.

The first Orion spacecraft mission, Exploration Mission-1, is meant to go up without a crew on board. The second, Exploration Mission-2, will launch humans around the moon and is supposed to fly by no later than 2023.

The OIG report puts the project’s problems largely on the shoulders of Boeing, the contractor building the rocket’s core stage, the body of the rocket that holds the fuel tanks and primary engines.

“We found Boeing’s poor performance is the main reason for the significant cost increases and schedule delays to developing the SLS core stage,” the report states.

Jason Davis, digital editor for The Planetary Society, expressed his disappointment at the delays, saying that NASA and Boeing have “utterly failed” to fulfill their promise to build the space agency’s most powerful rocket.

“You’d think by now NASA would know how to manage a rocket program,” Davis said. “They’ve been doing that since the early days. But clearly this report shows that there’s some problems.”


Private companies, meanwhile, continue to work to develop rockets that are reusable and cheaper. SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, sent a Tesla automobile into space earlier this year with a rocket built by the company.

Double the cost

Boeing was awarded a contract in 2012 to build two SLS cores for NASA, one for the first, uncrewed Orion flight and one for the second that would carry Americans around the moon. U.S. astronauts last landed on the moon in 1972.

At that time, the uncrewed flight was expected to launch in 2017. But that timeline didn’t work out as planned as the project has been plagued with construction delays and cost increases.

“At Boeing’s current expenditure rate, we project that NASA will spend at least $8.9 billion through 2021—double the amount initially planned — while delivery of the first Core Stage has slipped 2½ years from June 2017 to December 2019 and may slip further,” the report states.

The report found the main reasons for the delays and cost increases were that Boeing underestimated the scope of the work — and therefore the skills and workers required to complete it — and continually failed to provide NASA with realistic estimates for schedule and cost.

For example, the report highlighted a test of the rocket’s four main engines, as well as its liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel tanks, that must be conducted. That test is 18 months behind schedule, the report added, and may not be conducted until May 2019.

Boeing told the OIG that many of the problems were related to inadequate funding, though OIG officials and NASA vehemently disagreed.

“An unprecedented rocket program has inherent challenges; developing the first unit of a system that will safely carry humans into space, even more so,” Boeing said in a statement.

NASA personnel are not blameless in the rocket problem, either, the report found.

The report states that NASA has rated Boeing’s performance on the contract as “excellent” and, in some cases, “very good” despite the delays and cost changes. The space agency also already awarded Boeing 90 percent, or $323 million, of the fees available through the contract.

“Considering the SLS Program’s cost overages and schedule delays, we question nearly $64 million of these award fees already provided to Boeing,” the report stated.

NASA officials, in a statement, said they have “experienced several challenges associated with design, development, and manufacturing of such a large and highly complex system for the first time.”

The agency added that it “fully supports the SLS program and the core stage prime contractor, Boeing, as they have already overcome many challenges and continue to show major improvements in efficiency and management.”

‘They utterly failed’

The OIG report offered seven suggestions to better manage the contract for the rocket, which has drawn criticism for being too expensive and unsustainable.

The office suggested reviewing the contract and seeking an independent federal cost estimate. Once that review is complete, the report suggests that the contract be renegotiated based on that information.

Boeing said in the statement that many of the office’s suggestions already are being implemented.

“Boeing recognizes the importance of the SLS program to the nation and to the future of human space flight, and we are committed to its continued success,” the statement said. “We have restructured our leadership team to better align with current program challenges and we are refining our approaches and tools to ensure a successful transition from development to production.”

Davis said he thinks the project will eventually be canceled — replaced by a commercial rocket such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy — but that likely won’t happen soon. He expects that, as long as the schedule doesn’t slip further, a test flight will happen.

“All NASA and Boeing had to do to answer that criticism was just build the rocket and fly it,” Davis said. “They utterly failed to do that. That makes it really vulnerable to cancellation down the road.”

The announcement Wednesday comes on the heels of problems with the Hubble Space Telescope that forced the agency to put the groundbreaking observatory in “safe mode” for an unknown amount of time while NASA works to fix the problem. Hubble has been orbiting Earth for 28 years, credited with showing the world that the universe is 13.7 billion years old and that most galaxies harbor super-massive black holes.

Hubble’s problems can be traced back to worn-out gyroscopes, which keep the telescope pointed accurately for extended periods of time as it sends data back to scientists studying space.

Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at alex.stuckey@chron.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

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