The cost of a Nasa project to send a manned rocket to Mars is expected to double because of supplier failures and poor contract management, an audit has said.
In 2012 Nasa commissioned Boeing to build a heavy-lift rocket that could be used to send a manned mission to Mars, with the first crewed mission projected to launch in 2021. The contract was to deliver a two-stage rocket with a third exploration upper stage (EUS), where the crew would reside.
But an audit report by the Office of Inspector General said Nasa’s space launch system [SLS] programme was expected to spend $8.9bn by 2021, twice the initial expected outlay, without delivery of any of the three stages.
It added delivery of the first core stage has slipped two-and-a-half years to 2019 that the first crewed launch was not now expected until mid 2022.
“With $5.3bn expended as of August 2018 out of $6.2bn allocated for the Boeing Stages contract, Nasa expects Boeing to reach the contract’s value by early 2019 – nearly three years before the contract is supposed to end – without final delivery of a single core stage or EUS,” it said.
“As a result, the SLS programme will require a major increase in funding and renegotiation of the Boeing Stages contract to meet current launch readiness dates.”
The report placed blame on both Nasa and Boeing.
It said Nasa had “several poor contract management practices” that contributed to cost overruns and delays. Nasa “lacked visibility” over spend because, contrary to federal guidance, all three key stages of the rocket contract were managed under the same contract number.
The report criticised Nasa’s evaluation of Boeing’s performance, which led to “overly generous award fees”. “Considering the SLS Program’s cost overages and schedule delays, we question nearly $64 million of the award fees already provided to Boeing,” it said.
Contracting officers also approved contract modifications and issued task orders without proper authority, exposing the agency to $321.7m in unauthorised commitments. Most of these will require follow-up contract changes, it said.
On Boeing’s part, the report said the firm spent more than $600m above what was originally planned for the two core stages, and in the 2018 financial year alone Nasa spent $226m more than planned. It said cost increases and delays could be “traced largely to management, technical and infrastructure issues driven by Boeing's poor performance”.
It said Boeing “consistently underestimated” the scope of work required and the size and skill of the workforce needed to complete the work. In all the two core stages are expected to be delivered two-and-a-half years late and $4bn over budget.
“Based on Boeing’s current expenditure rate, Nasa will need to increase the contract value by approximately $800 million to complete the first core stage for delivery to the Kennedy Space Center in December 2019,” the report said. Another $400m would need to be added to the contract for the first unmanned launch to happen in 2020.
The performance of Boeing and other defence contractors has also led the Department of Defence (DoD) to launch an audit of its aerospace and defence supply chain, it has been reported.
Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, has said the audit would be launched after a White House commissioned report revealed a number of risks facing the sector including reliance on foreign suppliers and a shortage of workers domestically, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Boeing, one of the US’s largest defence contractors by value, has been having issues with its commercial supply chain that has left a number of partly finished planes parked outside a factory awaiting parts.
Neither Nasa nor Boeing have responded to a request for comment.
Separately, the US Air Force has awarded three contracts for prototype rockets capable of launching into space. The contracts were awarded to Blue Origin – owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, and United Launch Alliance.
Each company is developing its own launch system. The projects aim to ensure the US has access to space through two domestic operators without relying on a non-allied country.
Currently the US has no domestic vehicle capable of taking crew into space, and is reliant on Russia’s Soyuz rocket. One such rocket was forced to make an emergency landing yesterday after it malfunctioned. Both astronauts were unharmed.
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