Amid schedule uncertainty, Boeing will shed workers on SLS rocket program

The SLS rocket is seen on its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in August 2022.
Enlarge / The SLS rocket is seen on its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in August 2022.

Trevor Mahlmann

On Thursday, top Boeing officials leading the Space Launch System program, including David Dutcher and Steve Snell, called an all-hands meeting for the more than 1,000 employees who work on the rocket.

Officials announced there would be a significant number of layoffs and reassignments of people working on the program, according to two people familiar with the meeting. They offered several reasons for the reductions, including that deadlines for NASA’s Artemis lunar missions that will use the SLS rocket are sliding to the right.

Later Thursday, in a statement provided to Ars, a Boeing spokesperson confirmed Ars’ cuts: “Due to external factors unrelated to the performance of our program, Boeing is reviewing and adjusting current manning levels of the Space Launch System program.”

Better late than never?

For nearly a decade and a half, Boeing has led development of the core stage of the massive SLS rocket that NASA intends to use to launch the Orion spacecraft for its crewed missions to the Moon.

The contract has been lucrative for Boeing and has faced widespread criticism over the years for its largesse, with NASA spending tens of billions of dollars developing a rocket that reuses the main engines and other components of the space shuttle. Additionally, the rocket was originally supposed to debut in late 2016 or 2017, but didn’t actually fly for the first time until November 2022. And NASA’s inspector general has sometimes called Boeing’s handling of the program a “Bad” SLS rocket. “.

However, when the SLS rocket debuted a year and a half ago, it did exceptionally well in propelling an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to the Moon. After this mission, NASA declared the rocket “operational” and Boeing began production of the vehicle for future missions that will carry astronauts to the Moon.

So, in some sense, these reductions were inevitable. Boeing needed a lot of resources to design, develop, test and write software for the rocket. Now that the development phase is over, it is natural for the company to scale back its development activities for the main phase.

Boeing’s statement did not say, but sources told Ars that the job cuts could eventually reach hundreds of employees. They will be distributed primarily across the company’s rocket facilities in Alabama, Louisiana and Florida. The reductions will affect both the core stage program as well as the Upper Stage exploration program, a new upper stage for the rocket that is also beginning to move from development to production.

Waiting for other items

When Boeing cites “external factors,” it is referring to the varying timelines of NASA’s Artemis program. In January, space agency officials announced delays of about a year for the Artemis II mission, a crewed lunar flyby, until September 2025; and Artemis III, a Moon landing, through September 2026. None of these timelines are set in stone, either. Additional delays are possible for Artemis II, and likely for Artemis III if NASA sticks to current mission plans.

Although the SLS rocket will be ready for the current schedule, barring a catastrophe, other elements are uncertain. For Artemis II, NASA still hasn’t resolved a heat shield issue with the Orion spacecraft. This problem must be resolved before the mission gets the green light to continue next year.

The challenges are even greater for Artemis III. For this mission, NASA requires a lunar lander, provided by SpaceX with its Starship vehicle, in addition to spacesuits for the lunar surface provided by Axiom Space. Both of these remain firmly in the development phase.

Additionally, NASA is struggling with budgetary challenges. For the first time in more than a decade, the agency is facing budget cuts. This week, space agency Administrator Bill Nelson told Congress, “With less money, we have to make very difficult choices.” Among these, one could seek to use future SLS funding to consolidate other elements of Artemis.

One of the people close to Boeing’s internal meeting Thursday said the space agency came to the company earlier this year and said that in fact Boeing would receive less funding as the SLS develops would end. The company was given the choice to “extend” the funding it would receive, or take a one-year pause due to delays to the Artemis mission. Boeing chose to increase its funds, which was the cause of the reductions this week.

It would be easy, but unfair, to blame SpaceX and Axiom for delays to future Artemis missions. Congress created the SLS rocket with an authorization bill in 2010, but Boeing had actually received funding for related work dating back to 2007. In contrast, NASA only began funding work on the Starship lunar lander until late 2021, and Axiom spacesuits until 2022. In some sense, these developments are as technically demanding as the work on the SLS rocket, if not more.

News Source :
Gn tech

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