Amid uncertainty about the timeline, Boeing will lay off workers in the SLS rocket program

Zoom in / The SLS rocket is shown on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in August 2022.

Trevor Mahlman

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

According to two people familiar with the meeting, officials announced that there would be a large number of layoffs and reassignments of people working in the program. They gave a number of reasons for the cuts, including the fact that the timelines 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 the cuts to Ars: “Due to external factors unrelated to the performance of our program, Boeing is reviewing and adjusting current staffing levels in 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 manned missions to the Moon.

The contract was lucrative for Boeing, and has been widely criticized over the years for its generosity, as NASA has spent tens of billions of dollars developing a rocket that reuses the Space Shuttle's main engines and other elements. The rocket was originally supposed to make its debut in late 2016 or 2017, but it didn't actually fly for the first time until November 2022. NASA's inspector general has described Boeing's management of the SLS rocket program, at times, as “poor.” “.

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However, when the SLS rocket debuted a year and a half ago, it performed exceptionally well in lifting the unmanned Orion spacecraft towards the Moon. After that mission, NASA declared the rocket “ready for operation,” and Boeing moved on to producing the vehicle for future missions that would take astronauts to the moon.

So, to some extent, these cuts were inevitable. Boeing needed a lot of resources to design, develop, test, and write the software for the missile. Now that the development phase has ended, it is natural for the company to reduce development activities for the basic phase.

Boeing's statement did not mention this, but sources told Ars that the cuts could eventually reach hundreds of employees. It will be deployed across the company's missile facilities primarily in Alabama, Louisiana and Florida. The cuts will include the core stage program as well as the Exploration Upper Stage program, a new upper stage for the rocket that is also beginning to transition from development to production.

Waiting for other items

When Boeing refers to “external factors,” it is referring to delayed timelines for NASA's Artemis program. In January, officials at the space agency announced a nearly one-year postponement of both the Artemis 2 mission, a crewed flyby of the moon, until September 2025; and Artemis III, the moon landing, until September 2026. None of those timelines have been set either. Further delays are likely for the Artemis 2 mission, and potentially for Artemis 3 if NASA sticks to current mission plans.

Although the SLS rocket will be ready for the current schedule, barring a disaster, other elements are in doubt. As for Artemis II, NASA has not yet resolved the heat shield problem with the Orion spacecraft. This must be resolved before the mission gets the green light to go ahead next year.

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The challenges are even greater for Artemis III. To do this, NASA needs a lunar lander — which SpaceX provides with Starship — as well as lunar spacesuits provided by Axiom Space. Both of these elements remain firmly in the development stage.

In addition, NASA faces budget 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 so little money, we have to make some very difficult choices.” Among these, future SLS funding could be sought to be used to support other elements of Artemis.

The space agency came to the company earlier this year and said, in effect, that Boeing would receive less funding with SLS development halted, a person familiar with Boeing's internal meeting said Thursday. The company was given the option to “extend” the funding it will receive, or pause for a year due to delays in the Artemis mission. Boeing chose to extend the money, and that was the impetus for the cuts this week.

It would be easy, but unfair, to blame SpaceX and Axiom for delaying future Artemis missions. Congress created the SLS rocket with a licensing bill in 2010, but Boeing was already receiving funding for related work. Dating back to 2007. By contrast, NASA did not begin funding work on the Starship lunar lander until late 2021, and the Axiom spacesuits until 2022. To some extent, these developments are as technically demanding as the work of an SLS rocket, if not more so.

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