An announcement Wednesday by NASA that the first launch of the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket could slip by nearly a year has led one key senator to suggest the program needs some budgetary help.
NASA announced Wednesday that the SLS passed its Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) review, an assessment of the program’s technical and programmatic progress. The result of the review was an estimate of the program’s development cost ($7.021 billion from February 2014 to first launch). It also provided an estimate of when SLS would be ready for its first launch: no later than November, 2018. That’s nearly a year later than the currently scheduled date of that first launch, designated EM-1, of December 2017.
In a teleconference with reporters Wednesday afternoon, NASA officials tried to emphasize that the November 2018 date was not a firm launch date, but instead the result of the 70-percent joint confidence level model used for the review. . “If we don’t do anything, we basically have a 70-percent chance of getting to that date,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, adding that he was pushing his team to have SLS ready before then. “We will be there by November of 2018, but I look to my team to do better than that.”
However, he also admitted it was unlikely the SLS would be ready in December 2017 as previously planned. “It’s probably sometime in the 2018 timeframe,” he said, “but we don’t want to get too specific now.” NASA will have a better handle on the launch date for the EM-1 mission after completing KDP-C reviews for SLS ground systems later this year and Orion early next year.
SLS had been on a roller coaster in recent months. In July, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned of cost and schedule risks because of insufficient funding that could delay the EM-1 launch by six months. Earlier this month, though, SLS program manager Todd May said the GAO report was based on “obsolete” funding data and that the program had several months of slack on its critical path.
Part of May’s comments were based on additional funding Congress provided to SLS for the current fiscal year and House and Senate appropriations bills fiscal year 2015 that would also increase SLS funding above the administration’s request. But with the potential for a slip in the SLS program, could some members seek more funding for the program?
One senator thinks that, at the very least, the program’s current funding needs to be protected. “Technically things look good,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), in a statement provided by his office late Wednesday. “But we need to keep the budget on track so NASA can meet an earlier readiness date – which I think can be done.”