Report criticizes development of SLS test stands

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WASHINGTON — A rush to complete two test stands needed for development of the Space Launch System caused their cost to nearly double, even as the overall program suffered delays, according to a new report.

The May 17 report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the cost of the two test stands built at the Marshall Space Flight Center for testing SLS propellant tanks increased by more than 87 percent, to $76 million, as the agency overlooked potential long-term cost savings in a effort to expedite their construction.

NASA entered into an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in August 2013 to construct Test Stands 4693 and 4697 at Marshall, on the grounds of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal. The Corps of Engineers then awarded a contract to an Alabama construction company, Brasfield & Gorrie, to build the stands. The stands are large steel structures designed to perform load testing on the rocket’s liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks to simulate the conditions the tanks will experience during launch.

At the time of the contract award, NASA sought to have Test Stand 4693, for liquid hydrogen tank testing, done by May 2015 and Test Stand 4697, for liquid oxygen tank testing, by September 2015. NASA paid a $7.6 million premium for a compressed construction schedule in order to meet a planned December 2017 deadline for the first SLS launch.

The development schedule for SLS slipped, though, pushing back the first launch to November 2018 and, more recently, to some time in 2019. NASA was unable to recoup that premium because of the fixed-price nature of the contract.

The OIG report concluded that costs also increased because of changes in the design of the test stands. Those design changes were in large part caused when testing requirements for the tanks matured as the program advanced.

NASA had originally budgeted $30 million and $10.5 million for Test Stand 4693 and Test Stand 4697, respectively. The final costs for the two stands, OIG found, were $53.7 million and $22.3 million, with the construction completed in late 2016. The $76 million total cost represented an increase of 87.6 percent over the original budget.

“In short, rushing the decision regarding the test stands to support a December 2017 first flight raised the cost of constructing the stands by tens of millions of dollars,” the report concluded.

The report also criticized the decision to build the stands at Marshall without seriously considering alternative sites, notably the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The cost of building the liquid hydrogen tank stand at Stennis, Marshall officials said, was 23 percent more than the original cost of Test Stand 4693, but the OIG report noted that estimate was not originally documented and had to be recreated for the audit.

That analysis also did not take into account the lifecycle costs of the stands, in particular transportation costs. The tanks, built at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, must be transported by barge to Marshall, a circuitous route that takes two weeks and costs $500,000. Transporting the tank to Stennis would take less than one week and cost $200,000.

“Without a thorough analysis of alternative construction sites, including complete life-cycle cost analysis to include operations and maintenance costs, as well as transportation of test articles through the expected useful life of the stands, it remains unclear whether NASA made the most cost effective decision for the Program and the Agency in the long run,” the report stated.