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NASA’s Launch System Taking Years Longer Than Expected, Finds Audit

Boeing’s space division restructured the SLS leadership team in 2018 and early 2019 to adjust to the program challenges

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Boeing, NASA, Audit
An AR-22 rocket engine is test fired at the NASA Stennis Space Center in Stennis, Miss., July 2, 2018. The AR-22 engine is designed to power an experimental spacecraft. VOA

NASA’s flagship space launch system being built by Boeing is taking years longer than expected with cost overruns of nearly $2 billion, an audit found Wednesday, raising questions about meeting a goal of returning humans to the moon by 2024.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) identified $1.8 billion in cost overruns, including $800 million that NASA obscured in previous reports on its Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket and capsule that will eventually take humans back to the moon.

The issues around the rocket’s development, led by Boeing Co, mean that the first launch of the SLS originally scheduled for late 2017 could be delayed until June 2021.

Boeing’s space division restructured the SLS leadership team in 2018 and early 2019 to adjust to the program challenges and simplified its manufacturing process, Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said.

Boeing, NASA, Audit
NASA’s flagship space launch system being built by Boeing is taking years longer than expected. Pixabay

“No one is building a rocket like this, and we’re creating a very in-depth database for all future rockets,” he said.

The Trump administration directed NASA in March to land humans on the lunar surface by 2024, part of a broader program called Artemis that will use the moon as a staging ground for eventual missions to Mars.

The accelerated timeline, four years faster than originally planned, is likely to cost $20 billion to $30 billion over the next five years, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview with CNN last week.

Shifting costs

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The $1.8 billion cost overrun was nearly double what NASA reported to its inspector general in 2018 for SLS and the Orion capsule — the crew pod built by Lockheed Martin that will launch atop the rocket — the report said.

“NASA’s reporting of cost data for the SLS and Orion programs is not fully transparent,” it said.

NASA obscured the full cost growth of the SLS program by shifting roughly $800 million to future SLS missions to downplay the cost of the initial mission, the GAO report said.

Officials from NASA and Boeing also underestimated the manufacturing complexity of the “core stage” of four attached rocket engines, which could increase the cost and cause delays of two years or more, the report said.

 

Boeing, NASA, Audit
The General Accounting Office (GAO) identified $1.8 billion in cost overruns, including $800 million. Pixabay

Cost overruns, award fees

Despite the cost overruns, NASA has awarded Boeing at least $146 million and Lockheed $87 million in “award fees” to stay on schedule, but “the programs have not always achieved overall desired outcomes,” the report said. The space agency agreed to the report’s recommendation to re-evaluate its incentive system.

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NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight and operations, William Gerstenmaier, said in a response to the GAO’s report that the audit “does not acknowledge NASA is constructing some of the most sophisticated hardware ever built.” A NASA spokeswoman declined further comment. (VOA)

Next Story

This NASA-ISRO Mission Set to Crunch Key Space Data in Cloud

"Interest in space helps everybody. And there's a lot of commercial interest now. I think if there is a business to be made, commercial space will do that. When there is no business to be made that no one can make money, then the government should do that

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University of Iowa, Radiation, Sun
FILE - Tourists take pictures of a NASA sign at the Kennedy Space Center visitors complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida, April 14, 2010. VOA

By NISHANT ARORA

As the humankind aims for deeper space missions like Mars in couple of years from now, the time is to democratize humongous data available via NASA and space agencies like the Indian Space Research organization (ISRO) that can boost space research via next-gen Cloud computing, a top NASA-JPL official has stressed.

Scheduled for launch from Sriharikota launch facility in Andhra Pradesh in 2022, the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission is a joint project between the US and Indian space agencies to co-develop and launch a dual-frequency synthetic aperture radar on an Earth observation satellite. The satellite will be the first radar imaging one to use dual frequencies (L and S Band).

ISRO is likely to spend Rs 788 crore while JPL’s work share is expected to be over $800 million on this key project.

Using advanced radar imaging that will provide an unprecedented, detailed view of Earth, NISAR satellite is designed to observe and take measurements of some of the planet’s most complex processes — ecosystem disturbances, ice-sheet collapse and natural hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and landslides.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning-driven Cloud computing is certainly going to make the key difference once the satellite is up and running.

“NISAR is going to generate 100 terabytes per day. That’s a lot of data. It’s about a hundred times more than anything we’ve ever done together. It doesn’t fit in our data centres. So we have to put it in the Cloud,” Tom Soderstrom, Chief Innovation and Technology Officer, NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), told IANS during an interaction here.

“The data needs to be worked on for the Indian space agency with several others including NASA. Having it in the Cloud gives us a good place to store, analyse and parse it right for the benefit of humankind,” Soderstrom added.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a federally-funded research and development center in Pasadena, California.

“For our science data processing part, we discovered that we could use GPUs (graphic processing units) which were never done before. So, for NISAR, we tried GPUs and realized that it’s better, sometimes 100 times better, based on what you’re doing and overall four times faster,” Soderstrom explained.

ISRO
Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman K. Sivan, left, and Junior Indian Minister for Department of Atomic Energy and Space Jitendra Singh address a news conference in New Delhi. VOA

The data collected from NISAR mission will reveal information about the evolution and state of Earth’s crust, help scientists better understand our planet’s processes and changing climate, and aid future resource and hazard management.

According to Soderstrom, now they can not only process data much faster but also switch between CPUs and GPUs, whichever is the cheapest.

“Cloud will help us process the data differently. Now, you have lots of interesting data for different spacecrafts. We can now apply machine learning to see trends — both in the science and telemetry data,” said the NASA-JPL executive.

At JPL, everyone has intelligent digital assistant Alexa at his or her desk, helping the staffers organise daily tasks while making sense of intrinsic data-sets.

“An intelligent digital assistant has two pieces to it. It knows who I am and also knows how long I’ve been there, meaning it knows my role. So it can tell me things that I need to know before I even know I need them. You can ask Alexa simple things like when is NISAR launching or how much data it is producing on a daily basis, or where my source data is coming from,” Soderstrom explained.

Alexa can tell you about the mission’s budget. It can tell you about the compute environment and “we can speak to it, type to it or text to it. We apply machine learning to make Alexa smarter and smarter over time”.

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Soderstrom is also bullish on space collaborations between countries to create a better world.

“Interest in space helps everybody. And there’s a lot of commercial interest now. I think if there is a business to be made, commercial space will do that. When there is no business to be made that no one can make money, then the government should do that.

“If space becomes the business, then let the business people do it like Elon Musk began by transporting things to the International Space Station (ISS). JPL, on the other hand, wants to go and do things that have never been done before. So if people can go to the moon and mine it, so be it. Once Mars becomes commonplace, we’re going to Jupiter’s moon Europa in search of life,” elaborated Soderstrom. (IANS)