With a price tag of $1 billion, a mobile launcher built by NASA to be used for the launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket isn’t at all likely to live long and prosper. According to a report on NASASpaceflight.com, the expensive tower is “leaning” and “bending” northwards, and will probably only ever be used once.
However, NASA insists it is “structurally sound and does not require modifications”, the report says. Initially, the construction for the mobile launcher had begun for the Ares 1 rocket, but the structure has over time been going structural modifications for the SLS.
“For now, NASA says, the lean is not sufficient enough to require corrective action, but it is developing contingency plans in case the lean angle becomes steeper,” reports Ars Technica.
“In fact, it is entirely possible that the launch tower may serve only for the maiden flight of the SLS rocket in 2020 and then be cast aside. This would represent a significant waste of resources by the space agency.”
A tower that it took the agency two years to build has essentially taken eight years to modify.
An expensive throwaway
Now that NASA will be forced to seek more funding to built a second launcher, the agency isn’t going to be too excited to show the ground systems that it has pumped billions of dollars into to US Vice President Mike Pence, who is currently visiting the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida – where the mobile launcher is – to participate in the second meeting of the National Space Council.
Pence, who is the head of the space council, is likely to be all too well aware of the cost of the “leaning” tower. It’s been nine years since construction started on the launch tower and the initial burst of money spent on it was $234 million.
In 2010, disaster struck when, because of cost overruns and delays, the government’s Ares I and V rockets were cancelled. To try and repair the situation on its hands, NASA, in 2011, after Congress directed NASA to build a new large rocket – the SLS – “trade studies found that modifying the existing mobile launcher would cost $54 million, modifying the Space Shuttle Mobile Launcher Platforms would cost $93 million, and constructing a new mobile launch platform would cost $122 million”, reports Ars Technica.
The most attractive option at that time appeared to be the low cost option which was modifying the original launcher. But as the years steadily sped away, the cost jumped from the original $54 million to $281.8 million between 2012 and 2015 and to a grand total of $912 million since its inception.
But according to an audit report for the year 2012, this was perhaps not the best decision. “The two trade studies that NASA relied on to support its decision to modify the mobile launcher were based on limited information and preliminary assumptions that may not address all challenges or costs associated with launching the larger evolved version of the SLS,” the report reads.
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As a result, costs have steadily shot up over the years.
“The recently released White House budget for fiscal year 2019 reveals that NASA anticipates spending an additional $396.2 million on the mobile launcher from 2015 through the maiden launch of the SLS, probably in 2020, reports Ars Techinca.
Yet, it may not be the end of the road for the tower yet. If the mobile launcher were to be used for a future SLS rocket, further modifications that would take up to 33 months would be necessary.
Which is why the NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has recommended building another mobile launcher as a gap of three years between the two rockets breaks the chain of continuity that the agency was aspiring for.
But since it hasn’t been accounted for in the 2019 budget released by the White House, it’s not clear how this plan will blast off.