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NASA rocket becomes Boeing’s latest headache as Trump demands moon mission

Technicians at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans moved the largest piece of structural test hardware for the Space Launch System in December. (N/A/NASA)

Boeing senior executives arrived at NASA headquarters two weeks ago for what they knew would be a tense meeting. The rocket they’ve been building for NASA was behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Worse yet, there was no way it was going to be ready for a scheduled maiden launch in June 2020.

One estimate had the rocket launch as late as November 2021, and NASA’s leaders were furious, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about sensitive negotiations. President Trump and Vice President Pence wanted NASA to pull off something big and bold with human spaceflight before the 2020 election: sending a crewless capsule around the moon in a precursor to an eventual return of American astronauts to the lunar surface.

But the latest delays would push the flight well past the election.

“We’re not doing this,” a dismayed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the Boeing team. “We’re going to create an alternative solution. All options are on the table.”

This meeting, reported here for the first time, is the backstory to Bridenstine’s March 13 bombshell dropped during testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He said that although NASA still steadfastly supports the massive rocket, known as the Space Launch System (SLS), the agency would consider sidelining it and instead using commercially available rockets for the mission known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).

Bridenstine’s comments at the Senate hearing touched off a political maelstrom — angering Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the appropriations committee and SLS’s chief benefactor. Critics say the latest machinations are yet another example of how political pressures have sustained the lucrative rocket program for years, as it has maintained Congressional support no matter how high the costs or lengthy the delays.

In the space world, Bridenstine’s announcement set off shock waves. It not only signaled a potentially radical change in NASA’s plans to return to the moon, but was a major blow to NASA’s flagship rocket program and its main contractor, Boeing. The announcement came as the company has been under scrutiny for the way it has handled the crashes of two of its commercial airplanes that killed 346 people.

Bridenstine’s announcement prompted critics of the program to question whether NASA truly needs a government-owned heavy-lift rocket. The private sector is already producing such rockets. And although they are not as powerful as the SLS, they’re cheaper to fly, with reusable boosters.

Trump’s latest budget request states that a commercial rocket, not the SLS as previously planned, would be used to send a robotic probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The request also says commercial rockets would be used to put up a new outpost in lunar orbit, called the Gateway. Bridenstine testified last week that commercial rockets also could send astronauts to the Gateway — another presumed SLS function. And NASA has abandoned a much-derided mission to haul an asteroid to lunar orbit to be inspected by astronauts launched via the SLS.

“This is a rocket that has been looking for a mission,” said Lori Garver, who served as NASA’s deputy administrator under President Barack Obama.

For years, Boeing has long faced criticism for its handling of the program. Last year, a report from the NASA inspector general was withering in its criticism of the company, saying it already has spent $5.3 billion and is expected to burn through the remaining money by early this year, three years too soon, without delivering a single rocket stage. The report said problems at Boeing have led to a 2½-year delay and $4 billion in cost overruns.

“Boeing officials have consistently underestimated the scope of the work to be performed and thus the size and skills of the workforce required,” the report stated.

John Shannon, Boeing’s SLS program manager, said the company acknowledges widespread problems but recently has shown progress.

“We’re late and I completely own that, but we are dialed in now and the team is producing extremely well,” Shannon said. “I have high confidence that we’re going to come out with an amazing capability by the end of the year, and I can’t wait to get to that point.”

Companies in the cosmos: The new space race

In 2017, the agency’s watchdog reported in an audit that NASA had spent more than $15 billion on SLS, Orion, and the ground systems needed between 2012 and 2016. And it estimated that the total would reach up to $23 billion.

Construction of the rocket and the Orion spacecraft is spread out so that every state has jobs connected to the program. In all, SLS supports about 25,000 jobs nationwide, with a total economic impact of $4.7 billion, according to NASA.

That has helped the rocket win support among members of Congress, but also has fueled critics who have dubbed it the “Senate Launch System.” In addition to primary contractor Boeing, key contractors are Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman and the United Launch Alliance.

No state has benefited more than Shelby’s state, Alabama, home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The program has created about 13,000 jobs and has pumped $2.4 billion into the state’s economy.

So when the NASA administrator floated the idea of sidelining the rocket, Shelby released a statement saying: “While I agree that the delay in the SLS launch schedule is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion.”

Privately, his aides angrily chastised NASA officials.

The next day, Bridenstine reiterated his support for the SLS program in a blog post, saying the agency is “committed to building and flying SLS.” The day after that, he tweeted: “Good news: The @NASA and Boeing teams are working overtime to accelerate the launch schedule of @NASA_SLS.”

‘Over budget ... and unexecutable’

The SLS was born in the ashes of an earlier rocket program. Called Constellation, the program emerged under President George W. Bush and would send Americans back to the moon, and eventually to Mars. One element of the plan was the creation of a new, heavy-lift rocket, the Ares V, a modern successor to the Saturn V. It would hurl a new capsule, Orion, to the moon.

When Obama entered office, the Constellation program was struggling, and administration officials called it “over budget, behind schedule, off course and ‘unexecutable.’ ”

Obama killed Constellation in 2010, and directed NASA to aim for an asteroid and Mars instead of the moon. But the move once again angered Shelby, whose state is home to the Marshall Spaceflight Center, where much of the work on Constellation would have been based.

"The president’s proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human spaceflight,” he said at the time. “If this budget is enacted, NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science. It will be an agency of pipe dreams and fairy talks.”

Although the administration terminated the moon plan, it found it politically impossible to kill all of the projects already pouring billions of dollars into coffers of major aerospace contractors.

A quartet of powerful senators who have NASA space bases in their states — Shelby, Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) — protected the heavy-lift rocket as well as the Orion capsule. They pushed through legislation mandating construction of a heavy-lift rocket and even dictating how it would be designed, including the use of legacy space shuttle hardware.

The White House is in such a hurry to get to the moon that NASA is considering sidelining its major rocket to make it happen

With Constellation’s moon mission canceled, the precise purpose — the actual destinations — of the SLS and Orion became murky. The SLS clearly existed to launch Orion. But to where?

Throughout this process, the big rocket and Orion have crawled toward completion. NASA has been spending more than $3 billion a year on SLS and Orion. Both programs have faced delays.

The SLS has taken so long to build that it arguably is technologically obsolete, industry officials say. Much of the hardware is derived from the space shuttle, developed in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, a vibrant commercial launch industry, with Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman, is facing competition from relatively new entrants such as SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos (who owns The Washington Post). SpaceX has disrupted the launch industry by building largely reusable rockets and selling them at a discount: $62 million for its Falcon 9 and as low as $90 million for its Falcon Heavy.

By contrast, NASA officials have said that each launch of the SLS, a far more powerful rocket, would cost about $1 billion.

Garver, the former NASA deputy administrator, said that, if nothing else, these programs have delivered jobs to aerospace companies and NASA centers.

“Given that the purpose was to employ people and keep existing contracts going — they have delivered,” she said in an email.

Deep space aspirations

Since he was narrowly confirmed as NASA administrator a year ago, Bridenstine has been a steadfast supporter of SLS, a commitment he reiterated at the Senate hearing last week. He praised SLS and said it remains “a critical capability” for the U.S. space program.

The SLS is supposed to be the backbone of NASA’s deep space aspirations. But it still hasn’t flown, and the Trump administration is in a hurry to get to the moon.

At the Senate hearing last week, Bridenstine said NASA wanted to stick to its plan to launch no later than June 2020.

“Sir, if we tell you and others that we’re going to launch in June of 2020 around the moon ... I think it can be done. We as an agency need to consider all options to accomplish that objective," he said.

To meet the 2020 timeline, Bridenstine said the agency was looking at changing the mission profile, bypassing SLS for a pair of commercial rockets. Instead of launching Orion on a trajectory straight to the moon, it would look at the possibility of flying it to orbit the Earth. Then, on a second commercial rocket, NASA would launch a propulsion module. The Orion spacecraft would dock with it, and the propulsion module would shoot Orion to the moon.

Bridenstine’s blog post calls that option “not optimum or sustainable” and says having two rockets involved “adds complexity and risk that is undesirable.”

Boeing has said it is examining how to speed up work on SLS, including bypassing a months-long test program for the rocket’s first stage that was to occur at the Stennis Space Center and shipping it directly to the Kennedy Space Center.

Earlier this month, Jody Singer, the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, acknowledged that the program was having challenges and that its maiden launch would need to be delayed, according to SpaceNews.

That didn’t faze Shelby, who introduced Singer at the luncheon.

“As chairman of the appropriations committee, I have more than a passing interest in what NASA does," he said, according to the news site. "And I have a little parochial interest, too, in what they do in Huntsville, Alabama. Jody, you keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll keep funding you.”