NASA spent a decade and nearly $1 billion for a single launch tower

Enlarge / A long-exposure view of the mobile launcher at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.NASA

A new report published Tuesday by NASA's inspector general looks into the development of a mobile launch tower for the agency's Space Launch System rocket.

The analysis finds that the total cost of constructing and modifying the structure, known as Mobile Launcher-1, is "at least" $927 million. This includes the original $234 million development cost to build the tower to support the Ares I rocket.

After this rocket was canceled in 2010, NASA then spent an additional $693 million to redesign and modify the structure for the SLS rocket. Notably, NASA's original estimate for modifying the launch tower was just $54 million, according to the report by Inspector General Paul Martin.

Mobile Launcher-1 supports the 355-foot-tall SLS rocket, provides access to the Orion spacecraft, and provides power, communications, coolant, and fuel to the rocket.

So why did it cost so much to modify the mobile launcher? The report places a lot of the blame on a cost-plus contract with a company named Vencore, which provided designs for ground support equipment. The company's contract started in March 2011, and NASA chose to not exercise Vencores final contract year option in 2017 due to the company's overall performance.

NASA not blameless

But the space agency is not blameless.

"NASA exacerbated these issues by accepting unproven and untested designs from Vencore in order to advance the construction and fabrication contracts," the report states. "Agency personnel stated that at times they knew the subsystem designs were not complete or needed more testing but advanced them because the project schedule required it so fabrication and construction activities could continue."

Ultimately, by accepting these unfinished designs, NASA experienced significant delays and costly rework for Mobile Launcher-1 project, which in turn created further delays and cost overruns.

A schematic of Mobile Launcher-1.
Enlarge / A schematic of Mobile Launcher-1.NASA OIG

Moreover, NASA did not use contractual mechanisms to punish Vencore for its poor performance. According to the inspector general, employees at Kennedy Space Center who rated Vencores performance "stated that even though design work was over budget and behind schedule they believed the contractor performed well due to the obstacles tRead More – Source