NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has released the final audit of the agency's efforts to build the Mobile Launcher 2 (ML-2), a massive tower meant to facilitate the launch of crewed missions to the lunar surface — and it spells bad news for the space agency.
According to the scathing report — which many at the agency have been bracing themselves for — NASA's contract with tower builder Bechtel has been an absolute disaster, with the agency spending "approximately a billion dollars or at least 2.5 times more than initially planned."
Delivery of the tower will also "take at least 2.5 years longer than initially planned." That means Artemis IV, the program's inaugural crewed mission to the lunar surface, could be set back to the end of 2028, according to an analysis by the office's Independent Review Team.
That's a pretty hefty setback, especially considering the ML-2 was meant to be delivered in March 2023, according to NASA's original contract with Bechtel.
It's an unfortunate conundrum that could greatly delay the country's return to the Moon. The Trump administration had been selling Congress on the idea of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, for perspective.
But that date has consistently slipped, with costs ballooning to astronomical levels. NASA's Moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), has also been infamously mired in massive budget overruns and years of delays.
Now, even just the ML-2 tower alone, a platform meant to facilitate the launch of two special configurations of the SLS — Block 1B and Block 2 — capable of sending heavy cargo and astronauts to the lunar surface, is proving to be quite the disaster, according to the new report.
NASA's first Mobile Launcher was designed in such a way that doesn't allow for the launch of these configurations and won't prove very useful for crewed launches.
The OIG isn't pulling any punches and is ready to dish out the blame. The delays and budget overruns involved in the development of the tower "can be attributed primarily to Bechtel’s poor performance on the contract," the report reads.
But NASA is also to blame for awarding the contractor almost half of the $16.8 million in award fees, according to the report, despite Bechtel's horrendous performance.
The Inspector General therefore recommends that NASA do its due diligence and make sure cost estimates are accurate and well established before it enters "any new contractual agreements." And award fees should also only been given out only with a well documented rationale in hand.
NASA finds itself in an unfortunate predicament — and the whole world is watching.
More on the report: Something Very Bad Might Be About to Go Down at NASA