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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

NASA Spent A Decade and Almost $1 Billion on a Launch Tower

Around the Kennedy Space Center and common knowledge to space geeks everywhere is the gargantuan tracked vehicle called the Crawler or crawler transporter that has been used since the mid 1960s to carry full built rockets to the launch pad.  Originally built for the Apollo program, the hardware was modified and reused for the shuttles (Space Transportation Systems).

An Apollo Saturn V on the crawler way from assembly to the launch pads of complex 39.  The photo credits this as Apollo 10, March 11, 1969.

The launch umbilical tower is essentially all you can see in this photo, unless you look closely at the bottom where you'll see a squat, flat structure with enormous treads that it runs on.  That's the crawler.   The launch tower we're talking about replaces the large gray platform and the red painted tower that stands taller than the Saturn V (365') by a healthy margin.

The tower being built is for NASA's Space Launch System, and will take the place of the Apollo Launch Umbilical Tower.
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 will support the 355-foot-tall SLS rocket when stacked with the Orion spacecraft, allow access to the Orion, provide power, communications, coolant, and fuel to the rocket.

How does one spend "at least" $927 Million, 17 times the originally estimated $54 Million?  NASA awarded cost plus contracts to engineering services company Vencore.  The company's contract started in March 2011, and NASA renewed them year after year until finally choosing to not exercise Vencore’s final contract year option in 2017 due to the company's overall performance.

You can point fingers at Vencore all day, but at times they were just doing what NASA requested they do.
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 Vencore’s performance "stated that even though design work was over budget and behind schedule they believed the contractor performed well due to the obstacles they had to overcome. As a result, Vencore received 'excellent,' 'very good,' or 'good' ratings despite the ML-1 project being significantly over budget and behind schedule."
Shades of the SLS itself.
NASA officials did something similar for award fees with the contract for the SLS rocket's core stage and its prime contractor Boeing. Critics have said the rocket is a make-work project for the space agency designed to maximize jobs rather than further exploration. The new report tends to support such criticism of a rocket originally planned to launch in 2017 but unlikely to fly before late 2021 at the earliest.
A piece on Ars Technica from last November points out the $2 Billion cost per launch of the SLS.  For comparison, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy can only lift about 2/3 of the payload of the SLS, but does so at $150 Million per launch.  That means two launches for the equivalent payload at $300 Million or about 1/6 the price.  It seems I've criticized Alabama Senator Richard Shelby for pork barrel politics in pushing the SLS but I've ignored my own (former) senator Bill Nelson.  In that piece, Ars reports:
The Space Launch System was created as part of a political compromise between US Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and senators from Alabama and Texas.
Bill Nelson was voted out last time and replaced by former governor Voldemort: Rick Scott.

Quick followup on today's SpaceX mission to launch the next 60 Starlink satellites, the launch went by the numbers until about 10 seconds before Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) when one of the Falcon 9 booster's nine engines shut down early.  The booster's computer control extended the burn time of the other eight engines for a few seconds to make up for the speed loss.  Whether that was the cause or not isn't completely clear but "good ole booster B1048" ended up missing its landing on their drone ship off the coast of North Carolina.  It's also possible, but not proven, that the engine that shut down early was the one that caused the abort Sunday morning.

While B1048 completed five launches with the main mission succeeding, the fact remains no booster has yet to be recovered five times.   The only other booster with four launches (B1049) is said to be in line for the next Starlink mission.  Musk says he won't use these most-flown boosters for someone else's satellites. 


  1. What is it with NASA and their towers, post Apollo?

    The Shuttle launch facility at Vandenberg AFB was never completed, was way over-budget, and much of the work was done incorrectly.

    Now this.

    More and more, it looks like NASA should be an advisory board, not a job fair.

    As to the Falcon 9, well, sounds like the system designed to compensate for loss of one or more engines worked perfectly fine for the ascent portion. Good on SpaceX. Sucks to lose the booster, but, again, good on it to finish the delivery mission.

  2. Like the Muppet Show said:


  3. I am continuously reminded that the government manages to spend billion$ of dollars to reinvent 50+ year old technologies. I am waiting for Amtrak to get a $500 Billion budget to develop a new technology high speed passenger steam locomotive (kinda like a 4-6-2 "Pacific" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4-6-2) using biodiesel instead of coal.

    1. I think that would be progress for Amtrak. They're basically milking stuff that's a hundred years old. I'm sure parts are replaced and not all the railroad cars are over 25 years old, but the tracks, infrastructure, methods of doing things...

      I shouldn't talk. I've never been on an Amtrak train.

  4. Looks like NASA paid off some democrat party contributors.

    1. NASA or their contractors? It's hard to say except that they're equal opportunity. Richard Shelby from Alabama is a Stupid Party (R) guy while Nelson was Evil Party (D).

  5. It's the money. And the time. And the lack of oversight.

    Why? No one got fired, even the contractor. Why? So the NASA manager could take a job at the contractor after they left NASA.