June 28, 2022

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NASA's Second Mobile Launcher Too Heavy, Years Delayed, Paid $1 Billion

NASA’s Second Mobile Launcher Too Heavy, Years Delayed, Paid $1 Billion

Zoom / A comparison of the initial variant of the Space Launch System missile (left), and the upgraded variant, as well as the original and new mobile launch turrets.

NASA OIG

Three years ago, NASA awarded a value-added contract to engineering firm Bechtel to design and build a large, mobile launch tower. The 118-meter tower will support the supply and launch of a larger, more capable version of the NASA Space Launch System rocket that may debut during the second half of this decade.

When Bechtel won the contract for this mobile operator, called ML-2, it was supposed to cost $383 million. But according to a scathing new report from NASA’s Inspector General, the project is already years behind schedule, the launcher weighs a lot, and the whole thing is well beyond its budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. The new estimated cost of the project is $960 million.

“We found Bechtel’s poor performance to be the main reason for the large projected cost increases,” said the report, signed by Inspector General Paul Martin. The report concludes that Bechtel underestimated the scope and complexity of the project. In turn, Bechtel officials have sought to blame some of the project’s cost increases on the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of this spring, NASA has already committed $435.6 million to the project. However, despite these bountiful funding awards, as of May, the massive launch tower’s design work was still incomplete, Martin reports. In fact, Bechtel does not now expect construction to begin until the end of 2022 at the earliest.

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many mistakes

The report cites a series of errors by contractor, Bechtel, but it doesn’t spare NASA criticism. For example, Martin said that NASA awarded the contract to Bechtel before finalizing the upper stage specifications of the Space Launch System rocket. (The main upgrade of the rocket will come via a second, more powerful stage, known as the Upper Exploration Stage, or EUS.) This lack of final requirements to accommodate the EUS design has hampered the design of the mobile launch tower, which must power and refuel the missile on the ground.

NASA’s explanation for doing so is that it had no choice but to go ahead with the design and construction of the tower to meet the schedule of its lunar missions. The first three flights of the Artemis program, culminating in a human lunar lander no later than 2025, will fly on the initial variant of the Space Launch System rocket (which has its own separate mobile launch tower). However, starting with the Artemis IV mission, NASA wants to launch lunar missions on the more powerful and improved version of the SLS rocket, which will require a new mobile launch tower.

Nominally, this mission is planned for 2026, but realistically it won’t fly before 2027 or 2028, due to delays in previous Artemis flights. However, NASA lobbied for the construction of this second portable launch tower to be ready for 2026 and asked for design work to be done on the tower before the final requirements of the rocket were known. This will likely lead to additional costs, pushing the price of a second mobile launch tower above $1 billion.

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“We expect larger cost increases because NASA anticipates the possibility of additional changes due to the completion of EUS requirements and technical challenges once construction of the ML-2 begins,” the new report states. “In light of these issues, NASA is reassessing the ML-2 project’s budget and schedule estimates to provide a more accurate representation of projected increases.”

Excess cost plague

However, Martin attributes the majority of problems with project cost and delays to Bechtel. It got so bad that NASA took the unusual step of removing work from the Bechtel panel without reducing its payments to the contractor. In early 2022, to allow Bechtel to better focus on the core project, NASA and Bechtel agreed to take navel development out of the contract. NASA will use a different contractor for these cables and hoses and provide them for Bechtel for integration into the tower.

In light of escalating costs, NASA has sought to move the remaining work on the mobile operator contract from a cost-plus contract mechanism, where the government is responsible for abuses, to a fixed-price contract, where the private contractor assumes financial risk. The report notes that such an agreement has not yet been reached.

Problems with portable launch tower development, and the impending release of the Martin report, have been a growing concern among senior NASA officials wary of Congressional reaction.

In early May, while testifying before the US Congress, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was considering the massive costs of a launch tower as he targeted cost-plus contracts. – citing the advantages of fixed-price contracts, Nelson said“You get it done cheaper, and that allows us to move away from what has been an epidemic on us in the past, the cost-plus contract, and go to the current contract price.”

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List image by NASA/David Zetter