KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – NASA has little margin for error to stay on track for a late 2018 test launch of its new exploration rocket from Kennedy Space Center, government auditors reported Thursday.
Local 6 News partner Florida Today says the space agency hopes to fly the first Space Launch System rocket by November 2018, but has only four extra months available to address any unexpected problems that arise between now and then, increasing the risk of delays, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said.
"On a program like SLS such challenges are likely," the report states.
NASA agreed with several GAO recommendations intended to improve the credibility of estimates for how much it will cost to develop the SLS rocket, and how long it will take.
During an appearance this week in Cape Canaveral, a senior NASA official said development of new human exploration systems was progressing well.
"We're making a lot of progress, and we're working toward a launch in 2018," Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, told FLORIDA TODAY after a presentation to the National Space Club Florida Committee. "We haven't established a launch date as yet."
NASA is developing the Saturn V-like SLS to enable astronauts in Orion capsules to explore beyond low Earth orbit, starting with trips around the moon and potentially enabling missions near Mars by the 2030s.
The first SLS launch is a test flight that will not carry a crew. Astronauts won't launch before 2021.
KSC is preparing the Vehicle Assembly Building, a launch tower and launch pad, among other infrastructure, to support the big rocket, which will stand 322 feet tall in its first version.
NASA has committed to having the rocket ready for a 2018 launch at a cost of $9.7 billion, an estimate offered with 70 percent confidence of success.
Meanwhile, the agency continued to work internally toward readiness as much as 11 months earlier, leaving that much time in reserve to handle technical issues likely to crop up on such a complex project.
But seven of those months already have been gobbled up by repairs to tooling equipment for building the rocket's massive core stage. Subcontractors didn't install the equipment properly, according to the report.
Budget reserves can't make up for the limited time cushion. Because of the program's relatively flat annual funding, $1.7 billion this year, less than 4 percent is being set aside each year for reserves. Other development programs strive for a 30 percent reserve level at similar stages.
Overall, the auditors said NASA followed most best practices to produce its cost and schedule estimates for the SLS rocket, but still questioned their credibility.
That's because NASA did not cross-check its results with alternative methods for analyzing the numbers, did not commission an independent cost estimate from outside NASA, and is working with dated information.
"The continued accuracy of the estimates is also questionable because officials have no plans to update the original estimates created in 2013," the report said.