Europa Clipper Faces Delay Due to SLS Booster Decision

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit; NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s Europa Clipper orbiter could be placed in storage for two years awaiting a ride to Jupiter’s icy moon at a cost of $250 million due to Congress’ insistence that it be flown aboard the Space Launch System (SLS), according to a new review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The cost estimate assumes that the Europa orbiter will be ready for launch in July 2023. It would be placed in storage until launch aboard a SLS in September 2025.

“This amount includes the following costs: $1 million for physical storage; $129 million for workforce and potential staff requirements; $96 million for mission system impact and a change in cruise time to Europa from 2.4 to 3 years; and $24 million in cost reserves,” the GAO review stated.

The GAO review, which assessed all of NASA’s major projects, found the two-year wait for a launch has raised Europa Clipper’s budget from $4 billion to $4.25 billion.

Credit: GAO

The scenario assumes that a SLS rocket will be available for the launch in September 2025. However, development of the giant rocket has been slipping for years with large cost overruns.

Further, SLS rockets are being prioritized for returning U.S. astronauts to the moon under NASA’s Artemis program. The Trump Administration has moved up the deadline for a crewed surface landing four years from 2028 to 2024.

The Administration believes NASA could save up to $1.5 billion by launching Europa Clipper on another launch vehicle. Thus far, Congress has stood firm on using SLS.

Meanwhile, engineers are grappling with development and cost growth challenges with instruments that scientists will use to study the ice encrusted moon and look for signs of life beneath its frozen surface.

“The Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator made a decision to descope one instrument—the Interior Characterization of Europa using MAGnetometry—due to its significant and persistent cost growth and replace it with the Europa Clipper Magnetometer,” the GAO report said.

“The project has also identified that three of its remaining eight instruments have hit or exceeded the 20 percent cost growth threshold and two more instruments are nearing it,” the document added. “Once the cost threshold is reached, the project is to conduct a review of cost control options.”

GAO’s full assessment of Europa Clipper follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees

Government Accountability Office
April 2020

Europa Clipper

The Europa Clipper mission aims to investigate whether the Jupiter moon could harbor conditions suitable for life. The project plans to launch a spacecraft in the 2020s, place it in orbit around Jupiter, and conduct a series of investigatory flybys of Europa.

The mission’s planned objectives include characterizing Europa’s ice shell and any subsurface water, analyzing the composition and chemistry of its surface and ionosphere, and understanding the formation of its surface features. We did not assess the proposed lander mission, which NASA is managing as a separate project in pre-formulation.

Project Summary

In August 2019, the Europa Clipper project formally established its cost and schedule baselines of $4.25 billion and September 2025. This cost baseline—$250 million above the top end of the project’s preliminary cost estimate—reflects the costs associated with the new launch date, which is more than 2 years later than the project’s preliminary launch readiness date of July 2023.

The new launch baseline assumes the project will complete the spacecraft in 2023 and store it until the Space Launch System (SLS) is available for launch in 2025. The NASA Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate informed the project’s Mission Directorate that 2025 is the earliest the SLS could be available to launch the Europa Clipper. NASA officials stated they are pursuing legislative relief from the requirement to launch on SLS.

The Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator made a decision to descope one instrument—the Interior Characterization of Europa using MAGnetometry—due to its significant and persistent cost growth and replace it with the Europa Clipper Magnetometer.

Cost and Schedule Status

The Europa Clipper project entered the implementation phase and established its cost and schedule baselines in August 2019. The project set a baseline life-cycle cost of $4.25 billion and a launch date of September 2025. This is $250 million above the top end of the project’s preliminary cost estimate and more than 2 years after its preliminary launch readiness date of July 2023.

According to the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 the project shall use SLS as its launch vehicle. The NASA HEO Mission Directorate informed the Europa Clipper’s Mission Directorate that the earliest an SLS launch vehicle would be available for the Europa Clipper project is 2025. According to the NASA officials, before that date, all SLS launch vehicles would be required for use by the Artemis program.

The $250 million increase above the project’s preliminary cost estimate reflects the costs associated with this later launch date and assumes that Europa Clipper will complete development work in 2023 and be stored for 2 years.

This amount includes the following costs: $1 million for physical storage; $129 million for workforce and potential staff requirements; $96 million for mission system impact and a change in cruise time to Europa from 2.4 to 3 years; and $24 million in cost reserves.

According to NASA officials, it is possible that additional delays with SLS may lead to an SLS being unavailable for use by Europa Clipper in 2025, which could require the project to reset its cost and schedule baseline.

As of December 2019, the project reported that its cost reserve status is unacceptably low and that it is trying to identify ways to replenish it. The project has had to use reserves to address development challenges for both flight subsystems and instruments.

The Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator made a decision to descope one instrument—the Interior Characterization of Europa using MAGnetometry—due to its significant and persistent cost growth and replace it with the Europa Clipper Magnetometer.

The project has also identified that three of its remaining eight instruments have hit or exceeded the 20 percent cost growth threshold and two more instruments are nearing it. Once the cost threshold is reached, the project is to conduct a review of cost control options.

If the project cannot identify an acceptable recovery plan, the project’s Mission Directorate conducts a descoping review. Such a decision could impact the project’s ability to accomplish science requirements. As of December 2019, cost growth is a primary risk driver for accomplishing the project’s mission.

Technology and Design

The Europa Clipper project completed its preliminary design review in June 2019 after a previous delay due to design challenges integrating its radar and solar array, since addressed by decoupling these instruments. The project has identified no critical technologies and reported that all of its heritage technologies were matured to technology readiness level 6, a best practice to help minimize development risks.

The project continues to maintain compatibility with three launch vehicles: the SLS, the Delta IV Heavy, and the Falcon Heavy. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 states that the project shall launch on an SLS by 2025. NASA officials told us that they are pursuing legislative relief from the requirement to use SLS because it could allow the project to avoid storage costs and possibly achieve an earlier launch date.

The project reports that if a launch vehicle decision is not made before the project’s critical design review in August 2020 (which was delayed three months because a launch vehicle has not been chosen) then significant resources will be required to maintain multiple launch and mission trajectory plans.

Other Issues to Be Monitored

The project continues tracking a risk regarding the number of available qualified staff in the mission assurance and systems engineering areas. If qualified staff cannot be provided by the institutions supporting the project, then there could be risk to the quality of the design.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, Europa Clipper project officials stated that maintaining compatibility with multiple launch vehicles is causing the project to expend significant resources maintaining multiple launch and mission trajectory plans.

Officials stated it is also precluding the team from focusing on the detailed design, and validating that that design will meet the requirements for a specific launch vehicle and mission trajectory. Project officials said that this inability represents both cost risk and mission risk. Officials also provided technical comments on a draft of this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.