‘Not progress’: NASA’s giant SLS rocket is expensive and late, ex-Deputy Administrator says

‘Even I could not have imagined how late and how over budget it would be.’
Chris Young
Lori Garver at a NASA press conference in 2011.
Lori Garver at a NASA press conference in 2011.

Source: Bill Ingalls/NASA /Handout 

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver served under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013. In her new book, ‘Escaping Gravity,’ she gives readers a deep dive into a time when internal forces within the space agency were pulling in opposite directions.

At the time, Garver was encouraging the space agency to work with the private sector to build more efficient and cost-effective space transportation solutions — allowing it to put more funding towards its scientific pursuits.

While Garver says the idea “really resonated” with President Obama, her superior, former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, strongly opposed it and drove the agency to develop the Space Launch System (SLS) with established, traditional contractors.

The SLS was initially meant to launch in 2016 with a development cost of $10 billion. As of 2022, it has cost U.S. taxpayers $23 billion, and, at the time of writing, it has yet to reach orbit.

We spoke to Garver ahead of the launch of NASA’s SLS rocket for its Artemis I mission — the first launch attempt on Monday, August 29, was canceled. Garver didn’t hold back on what she views as an important mission that has been implemented and overseen in all the wrong ways.

Interesting Engineering: How do you feel about the launch of SLS? Do you feel excitement or a little trepidation?

Lori Garver: “I feel trepidation. That's a good way to put it. I've got so many people, friends, and colleagues who are working on it and I want it to go well for them. It's the first rocket though, and it's complex. We’ve got a lot riding on it. So I am also nervous. But I get nervous for every rocket launch.”

IE: Seeing as you’ve written and spoken out a lot about the delays and budget issues with SLS, when do you think we’ll get back to the moon?

“I think it’s so difficult to predict. If the test flight goes perfectly, they can launch again with people in 2024. And then they would land [on the moon] after that. So if NASA is saying 2025, I guess I would probably say 2026 at the earliest. I certainly believe we will see it before the decade is out.”

IE: SLS is sometimes unkindly referred to as the Senate Launch System. Why is that?

“This was a program that really was dictated by legislation. We had not requested funding for it in the Obama administration budget. Our plan was to pivot to doing things differently and partnering with industry for transportation rather than spending NASA's valuable dollars on just launching rockets. That’s because we [the government] were not very efficient at it and we've shown that historically, whereas the private sector has been doing it [efficiently] for decades. But we lost that battle, and Congress voted in their legislation that we needed to operate with shadow contractors.

"I, myself, don't really like to call it the Senate Launch System. Having worked at NASA, I'm well aware that there were a lot of people within NASA who wanted to do it this way, and the aerospace industry, especially, wanted to do it this way. So Congress was reacting to its constituency.”

IE: You say you lost the battle. Why?

"Many reasons. As I go into in the book, the NASA team itself was not on the same page with the White House. The administration that NASA is part of had chosen, as I said, this new path, but the head of NASA at the time [former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden] didn't really buy into it. He didn't ask any of his people to buy into it. So I was the deputy, he was the administrator, and I don't know if they thought they just knew better than everybody else or what, but they said it could be done quickly and in ways that weren't very expensive. And I just knew that was false.

"If everything goes perfectly for SLS, we'll only launch two or three times in five years. That is not progress."

"And here we are. Even I could not have imagined how late and how over budget it would be. And then when it was supposed to be launching back in 2016, and for less than half of what it has cost. It has cost $23 billion and the [Orion] capsule another $20 billion on top of that.

"It won't even carry astronauts, and it won't be able to launch again for two years. I mean, for Apollo, the Saturn V launched 12 times in the first five years. If everything goes perfectly for SLS, we'll only launch two or three times in five years. That is not progress."

IE: Your book starts with an anecdote regarding one of your first meetings with President Obama, where you spoke to him about the need to transition towards the private sector. Can you tell us about that?

"Yes, this is not something that started with me. Of course, here in the United States, the government typically drives new technology by sound risk so that our private sector industry can be competitive and open new markets, and that's a very efficient system. NASA has used it for a lot of successes like commercial communication satellites and Earth remote sensing satellites.

"We have so many things that NASA drove even in aeronautics, that as they are adopted by the industry, the industry innovates and is able to really expand our economy, instead of doing these cost-plus contracts that you're just paying more every year whether contractors deliver or not. So, we’ve worked with the private sector since the beginning. It's just how you define that relationship and how you procure the services or goods.

"In my very first conversation with then-candidate Obama, he asked if we should extend the Space Shuttle program. I explained that, well, for one, we had let go [of] third-tier contractors. This was just really two years before its planned retirement, and that was going to cost billions of dollars, and they had already proven to be a very risky system.

"We were not able to overcome those forces because the leadership of NASA was not aligned with the vision."

"I explained that, by working with the private sector, we could do this more efficiently and save the NASA funds for the really exquisite, unique science missions where there isn't a market. For space transportation, there is a market. We've been launching things for 60 years from planet Earth to space, and the industry has gotten pretty good at it. I think that really resonated with him. As I said, it didn't start with me. I was at NASA in the 1990s, and this was what the plan was at the time under Administrator Dan Goldin. Space Shuttle replacement wasn't going to be owned and operated by the government. But the forces of the status quo in government, especially, are very strong. And we were not able to overcome those forces because the leadership of NASA was not aligned with the vision."

IE: Is NASA at least moving in the right direction with Artemis III utilizing Starship as a lander?

"So, it’s interesting. Yes, we are in a transition where half the program is the old style of procurement of cost plus accounting, spending 10s of billions of dollars. But, they weren't able to get the typical type of procurement to work for a lunar lander and they went to SpaceX.

"So, really, I think these are chapters yet unwritten, which will be the long pole in the tent. You never know. Could SLS and Orion be ready [for Artemis III] and the commercial lunar lander won’t? We shall see. That's why I think it's really hard to predict the year because you also need the systems to work together. Plus, you need to prepare the spacesuits and the rovers and things you're going to actually do on the moon. This was really a program that was announced before the details were filled in. That's not unusual. Obviously, when Kennedy said we're going to the moon we didn't have the details either. This time, though, we have been trying to go back to the moon for 50 years. And you certainly would have thought it would look more different and that it would be a more advanced, sustainable, and less costly program than Apollo."

IE: Given all of these details, do you feel a certain sense of vindication for your resistance to the SLS program during your time at NASA?

"Any sense of vindication is long over. I'm actually just sad that it has taken so long."

"No. So, obviously, the delays have built up over the years. When I left NASA in 2013, I made a statement to the media that I did think SLS was going to be delayed a year or two. NASA balked, and they even put out a press release saying that wasn't true. Boeing even put out a statement saying it was ahead of schedule. So at the time, it was supposed to launch in 2017. So a year or two delay would have been 2018 or 2019. Now it's 2022, so any sense of vindication is long over. I'm actually just sad that it has taken so long.

"As I said before, I know a lot of people worked really hard on SLS, and it's not their fault. The structure was not set up to be efficient or to be geared for progress. It was more for jobs, and NASA has been very open about selling this as a jobs program."

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