Space Launch System
Space Launch System. Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

WASHINGTON — A long-running debate between the White House and Congress about funding levels and prioritization of NASA programs entered a new phase last week after a major cost and schedule review concluded the debut of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket may be delayed by nearly a year.

NASA announced Aug. 27 that the SLS completed a development milestone known in agency terminology as Key Decision Point (KDP)-C, a review that confirms the SLS program is ready to proceed with full-scale development. The review established an estimated cost of $7.021 billion for SLS development from February 2014 through its first launch. That is in addition to the several billion dollars NASA has spent on the rocket since being ordered by Congress in 2010 to build it.

NASA had been targeting an initial launch of SLS, carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a flight named Exploration Mission (EM)-1, for December 2017. However, NASA officials said they were now planning a first launch for no later than November 2018. Both the budget and schedule estimates from the KDP-C review are based on a 70 percent joint confidence level model, the first use by a NASA human spaceflight program of a modeling approach widely used for agency science missions. That model incorporates a project’s cost, schedule and risk information to calculate the probability it will be completed by a specific date and for a specific cost. In this case, it means there is a 70 percent chance SLS will be ready to launch no later than November 2018 for no more than $7.021 billion.

In a teleconference with reporters, William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the SLS project was still working toward an earlier launch date than November 2018 by mitigating risks raised in the review. “If we don’t do anything, we basically have a 70 percent chance of getting to that date,” he said. “We will be there by November of 2018, but I look to my team to do better than that.”

However, he acknowledged that it was likely the EM-1 launch would slip from December 2017 into 2018. “It’s probably sometime in the 2018 time frame,” he said, “but we don’t want to get too specific now.”

The November 2018 readiness date is based only on development of SLS. A separate KDP-C review is planned later this year for the ground systems that support the rocket, followed by one early next year for Orion. Only when all those reviews are complete will NASA be able to provide a better estimate for the EM-1 launch date, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said.

The cost estimate for SLS, according to Lightfoot, is consistent with the $1.6 billion NASA received for the program for 2014 and the administration’s request for fiscal year 2015 and beyond.

The White House has requested $1.35 billion for the program for 2015, with a relatively flat budget projected through 2019. However, a House appropriations bill passed in late May would give SLS $1.6 billion in 2015, while a Senate version would provide $1.7 billion. Action on the Senate bill stalled well before Congress broke for August recess.

The KDP-C review comes after some mixed news about the progress of SLS. In July, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned of a significant risk of insufficient funding that would delay the first SLS launch by six months and add $400 million to the program’s overall costs.

However, in an Aug. 8 speech at the 17th annual International Mars Society Convention in League City, Texas, SLS Program Manager Todd May said that there was three to five months of slack in the critical path for SLS development. “We’re just clicking off milestones,” he said.

May said the GAO report warnings about cost and schedule risks were based on older data, before the program received additional funding from Congress for 2014, with another increase anticipated for 2015.

“In December of 2017, my hardware will show up to support that flight,” he said of the EM-1 launch.

The day after NASA announced the KDP-C review, two key members of the House Science Committee said they wanted more information from NASA about potential delays in both the SLS and the Orion crew spacecraft, while lamenting what they consider to be a lack of emphasis on those programs by the White House.

In a letter released Aug. 28 by the House Science Committee, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), the chairmen of the full House Science Committee and its space subcommittee, respectively, asked NASA Administrator Charles Bolden for additional details on potential delays for both SLS and the Orion crew spacecraft.

The letter does not explicitly mention the latest NASA review, but instead references the July GAO report as well as recent comments by Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer that he was “struggling” to make a December 2017 launch date.

“These findings are surprising to say the least considering the numerous claims of sufficient funding,” Smith and Palazzo write in the letter. “Despite numerous statements over several years that these two national priority programs are sufficiently funded, it now appears that this may not be the case.”

Smith and Palazzo ask Bolden several questions in the letter, including whether the first SLS/Orion mission will launch in 2017 and why the administration sought less funding for those programs in its 2015 budget request versus what Congress appropriated for fiscal year 2014. They are seeking responses from the agency by Sept. 10.

In a brief statement late Aug. 27, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce space subcommittee, offered a more positive spin on the KDP-C review. “Technically things look good,” he said. “But we need to keep the budget on track so NASA can meet an earlier readiness date — which I think can be done.”

In the Aug. 27 teleconference, Gerstenmaier said that NASA was addressing technical and budgetary concerns raised in the GAO report. He added that there are currently no plans to seek additional funding to accelerate the SLS development schedule.

“I still think we have a good chance of SLS being there some time in the December [2017] time frame, maybe slightly into 2018 depending on what happens,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...