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Beancounters tell NASA it's too poor to fly planned mega-rocket

Space Launch System would need another $400m and a lot of time

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The US Government Accounting Office (GAO) has told NASA it has a massive funding shortfall for its ambitious Space Launch System (SLS) rocket if the spacecraft has any chance of blasting off on schedule.

"The agency’s current funding plan for SLS may be $US400 million short of what the program needs to launch by 2017," the report states.

"Furthermore, the development schedule of the core stage - which drives the SLS schedule - is compressed to meet the 2017 launch date. NASA also faces challenges integrating existing hardware that was not originally designed to fly on SLS."

The SLS is one of NASA's most ambitious projects to data – a 321ft behemoth that can loft 70 tons into orbit and will be key to the agency's plans to put astronauts on Mars. The estimated cost of building three types of SLS is expected to top $12bn, but according to the GAO report NASA doesn't have enough money to do the job.

The first SLS flight is scheduled for December 2017 and the agency says it is 70 per cent confident of hitting that deadline. Earlier this month the agency signed a $2.8bn contract with Boeing to build the main stage of the SLS and last week NASA test fired one of the RS-25 rocket engines that will provide propulsion.

The SLS will use four RS-25 rocket engines, the same type that were used on the space shuttle, and will have two specially adapted shuttle solid-fuel boosters strapped to the side of the main rocket. The GAO report noted that these boosters are already causing NASA manufacturing problems.

The report suggests NASA formulates a proper business case for the SLS and economizes on its plans in order to have a shot at hitting its launch date and budget. ®

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