Analysis-Boeing and Northrop face hurdles in bringing flagship US rocket to market

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – NASA’s plan to hand over its flagship rocket to contractors Boeing and Northrop Grumman to find more buyers and cut costs is facing significant hurdles due to weak demand even from the Pentagon and the United States. an extensive network of suppliers.

The US space agency is pushing ahead with plans to turn over ownership of the Space Launch System (SLS) to a Boeing-Northrup joint venture within the next few years, in a bid to halve the rocket’s price, estimated at $2 billion . But finding a market for a giant and expensive rocket is proving difficult, with the US Department of Defense (DoD) – considered a potential customer – showing little interest.

“It’s a capability that we, the DoD, don’t need right now,” Colonel Douglas Pentecost, a senior rocket acquisition official with the U.S. Army Space Force, said in a statement. an interview. “We have the capability we need at the affordable price we have, so we’re not interested in partnering with NASA on the SLS system.”

As a commercial venture, the SLS could face other challenges, including competition from cheaper, reusable rockets such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starship and compatriot Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin’s New Glenn. The SLS is not reusable.

The SLS is an awe-inspiring sight, resembling a huge dart as it soars as high as a 32-story building on the launch pad. But he only ever served NASA. Its first and only use to date dates back to last November, when it was successfully launched from Florida as part of NASA’s Artemis program which aims to bring astronauts back to the surface of the moon as early as 2025.

NASA’s SLS vision has its skeptics.

“I don’t see the cost going down at this point to be competitive, just given the history and the difficulty of a rocket to build,” said Cristina Chaplain, former deputy director of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the US Congress.

“Even when they stabilize production, I don’t see them having quite the factory line that you need for this sort of thing,” added Chaplain, who led SLS’s GAO audits.

A lack of SLS launch dates amid a backlog of Artemis program missions in the coming years is another hurdle, even though there is demand for the rocket beyond NASA, Chaplain said.

NASA currently manages SLS production, with Boeing and Northrop its main contractors, each with contracts under which the space agency bears the costs of delay. Boeing and Northrop executives declined to discuss SLS’s cost-cutting plans under the proposed commercial contract. Boeing said the potential deal is still being negotiated with NASA.

‘A MAP TO ARRIVE’

The goal would be for the two companies to sell the rocket to other customers for the first time, after its decade of development and successful debut in 2022, NASA officials said. This would allow NASA to free up its budget and personnel for other programs under Artemis.

“If they can sell it, they (Boeing and Northrop) get more flow through the plant, which lowers our recurring engineering costs,” said Jim Free, head of space exploration wing at NASA overseeing the Artemis program, in an interview. “We thought of a map to make it happen, we need them to commit, to be okay with that map.”

NASA officials said a key part of the plan is finding new customers, which could include the Pentagon or commercial players.

Space Force Pentecost said Boeing is in talks with U.S. defense officials to explore offering SLS as part of the Pentagon’s Phase 3 National Security Space Launch Competition — a program of supply that is expected to buy billions of dollars worth of launches from multiple companies. While the SLS meets the Pentagon’s requirements, its low production rate “probably doesn’t,” Pentecost added.

Boeing said SLS would work well for that program, but told Reuters the company “is not actively pursuing it” at this time.

NASA officials have acknowledged that it won’t be easy to scale the roughly $23 billion SLS program, its vast network of suppliers, and a workforce of thousands of agency and sub-contractors in a less expensive contract managed by the private sector. Boeing said the SLS program created 28,000 jobs.

NASA wants one SLS rocket produced each year for Artemis and plans to buy four SLS launches from Deep Space Transport, the Boeing-Northrup joint venture, after the fifth mission. The deal includes an option to purchase five additional launches.

Convincing about 400 suppliers in 46 U.S. states, already struggling with rising labor costs, to ramp up production and staffing would be another issue, according to Amit Kshatriya, the head of the new Moon to NASA Mars, formed in March to manage the Artemis Agency and SLS Strategy.

Even if Boeing and Northrup don’t meet NASA’s cost-cutting targets, the agency still plans to pressure them to cut costs, Kshatriya said.

“We can’t just wait and hope that all of these responses will be part of this one market,” Kshatriya added.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Will Dunham and Ben Klayman)

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