WASHINGTON — The first components for a new mobile launch platform for NASA’s Space Launch System, which has suffered extensive cost and schedule overruns, have arrived at the Kennedy Space Center.

Bechtel, the prime contractor for the Mobile Launcher 2 (ML-2), said May 25 that the first steel components for the structure arrived at KSC earlier this month. The steel trusses, manufactured for Bechtel by Paxton & Vierling Steel in Iowa, will be part of the foundation of the base of the structure.

NASA awarded a contract to Bechtel in 2019 to design and build ML-2, which will be used by the Block 1B version of the SLS. That version of the rocket, with a more powerful Exploration Upper Stage, is taller than the current Block 1 version and requires a new structure to support it.

That cost-plus contract was originally valued at $383 million, with delivery of ML-2 scheduled for March 2023. However, the development of the structure has suffered serious delays and cost overruns. An audit by NASA’s Office of Inspector General in June 2022 concluded that the structure would cost up to $1.5 billion and not be completed until late 2027.

Those problems prompted unusually strong public criticism of the project by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. He told Senate appropriators in May 2022 that the problems with ML-2 were evidence that cost-plus contracts, where contractors are reimbursed for their costs plus a fee, were a “plague” on the agency.

“Because Bechtel underbid on a cost-plus contract in order to, what appears, to get it,” he said of the ML-2 contract, “they couldn’t perform. And NASA is stuck.”

Bechtel has kept a low profile through that criticism of ML-2, but there have been signs of progress, including completion of a critical design review for the project.

“The success of the completed Integrated Critical Design Review (ICDR) and now our first steel delivery are two recent milestones that reflect the team’s dedication and drive,” said Felice Presti, project manager at Bechtel, in a company statement. “We remain committed to our mission of permanently changing the landscape at Kennedy and supporting the proud history and legacy of our customer, NASA.”

NASA has also been more complimentary about ML-2 recently. “This last six months of performance on the Bechtel side, I’ve been very, very pleased with the progress they’ve made,” said Amit Kshatriya, director of NASA’s Moon to Mars program office, during a May 15 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee.

He noted the recent completion of the ICDR and impending shipment of the first steel components for it. That would allow tower construction to begin by the end of the summer.

Artemis 4, the first launch of the SLS Block 1B and thus the first use of ML-2, is currently scheduled for the fall of 2028, according to a NASA Artemis mission manifest published in March.

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...