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SLS illustration
An illustration of the Space Launch System, with an Orion spacecraft on top, being prepared for launch. NASA says the first SLS/Orion mission is on schedule for the fall of 2018, but recent GAO reports have raised issues about the schedule for that mission, and a crewed mission NASA wants to fly in 2021. (credit: NASA)

Scrutinizing NASA’s exploration efforts

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Neither of the two major party candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have offered many details about what changes, if any, they would make to NASA’s major programs if elected (see “The one space policy question for the candidates”, The Space Review, August 1, 2016). It’s reasonable to assume, though, that at some point after taking office they’ll perform some kind of assessment of some major ongoing efforts, like the Space Launch System and Orion. That could be an internal study or an independent outside review, like what President Obama did in 2009 with the Augustine Committee, which ultimately led to the cancellation of Project Constellation.

“All of our teams today believe we can get there,” said NASA’s Hill on plans to launch EM-1 in the fall of 2018.

So what would that hypothetical review of NASA’s human space exploration efforts find? Based on recent statements, it depends on who you talk to. While NASA officials state they’re making good progress on SLS and Orion, as well as supporting ground equipment, analyses by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggest those efforts face cost and schedule problems that could pose problems for the next administration.

Keeping EM-1 on track

“This is an amazing period of time in human spaceflight,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in a July 25 meeting of a NASA Advisory Council committee. Gerstenmaier was showing a chart illustrating the various locations in the US where hardware, including both NASA’s human exploration systems as well as those being developed by Boeing and SpaceX for commercial crew, were being built. “I don’t think we’ve had this much flight hardware, this much manufacturing, this much development activity, ever in place since Apollo.”

The emphasis of Gerstenmaier’s presentation was on SLS, Orion and Exploration Ground Systems as they move towards the first SLS flight, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). “We’re moving forward on all these pieces, all this hardware starts showing up down at the Cape next year,” he said. “We’re roughly about two years away from flight of EM-1.”

Specifically, the EM-1 launch is planned for between September and November of 2018, a date agency leadership says is realistic. “All of our teams today believe we can get there,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, of that planned date in a presentation following Gerstenmaier at the committee meeting. “We have some challenges, but we believe we can get there.”

Foremost among those challenges is development of the Orion service module, which the European Space Agency is providing to NASA. The module completed its critical design review just a few weeks before the meeting, Gerstenmaier said, and manufacturing is in progress, but is running behind schedule.

“We had planned on getting the service module from the Europeans in January. We will now get that service module more likely in April,” he said. “We’re preparing for it to be even a little bit later than that.”

That delay ripples through the rest of the program as Orion comes together with SLS at the Kennedy Space Center in advance of the fall 2018 launch. Gerstenmaier said that the program is looking at changing testing schedules to keep the overall launch on track. That could include doing a “wet dress rehearsal” for the SLS launch without Orion being there.

“We’ve got a lot of milestones under review,” Hill said. “Our ground systems folks are out ahead of it, taking a look at that. As Gerst said, we’re looking at redoing the flow on the ground systems. They’ve got some good ideas of how to get there.”

“We’re in the process of building a robust schedule that can deal with the problems we may see going forward,” Gerstenmaier said.

Gerstenmaier said he expected more complications as the EM-1 launch approached, requiring more adjustments to the schedule to maintain the planned launch date. “SLS will face this same kind of part challenge when they start bringing all these parts together, especially outfitting the engine section and putting all the plumbing and ducting in,” he said. “We should see some problems through that whole activity as we do that work on the SLS.”

“But again, I think we’ve got reasonable margins in our schedules,” he emphasized. “We’re in the process of building a robust schedule that can deal with the problems we may see going forward.”

After EM-1 comes EM-2, the first crewed SLS/Orion mission. A review nearly a year ago set the launch of that mission to be as late as April 2023, driven by completing development of Orion so it can support crews. However, NASA said then that it would work to an earlier date, in 2021, for that mission.

That’s still the case today. “Right now we’re holding EM-2 to an August ’21 launch date,” Hill said.

Skepticism from the GAO

A few days later, though, the GAO offered a more skeptical take. In a report on the Orion program, it raised questions about the cost and schedule estimates used by the program. The program, it argued, failed to meet many best practices for developing its cost and schedule estimates. “As a result, decision makers have reduced insight into program performance and do not have a foundational baseline upon which to make decisions,” the report stated.

The GAO in particular raised issue with NASA’s use of that August 2021 launch date for EM-2. That internal goal, coupled with its estimated cost of $10.8 billion, has a “joint confidence level” of 40 percent, which means that NASA has only a 40 percent chance of having Orion ready for EM-2 by that date and at that cost. The April 2023 date, the official baseline, has a joint confidence level of 70 percent.

NASA does allow programs to set more aggressive internal goals, but the GAO noted that policy requires those goals to have a joint confidence level of no lower than 50 percent. “Therefore, the program’s cost and schedule is aggressive beyond agency policy, and may increase the risk that the program goes over budget and does not meet its schedule,” the GAO concluded in its report.

In addition, the GAO found that NASA was setting aside very little current-year Orion funding for program reserves. “According to Orion program officials, the program has decided to employ most of its available appropriated funds to fund current work and has placed almost all of the funded schedule reserve… towards the end of the internal goal schedule,” the report stated.

That could cause problems in the future. “The Orion program may find itself in a similar situation to that experienced by the Constellation [and] JWST programs, which had minimal cost reserves in early years to handle technical challenges that manifested and forced the programs to defer work,” the GAO report stated.

“The [Orion] program’s cost and schedule is aggressive beyond agency policy, and may increase the risk that the program goes over budget and does not meet its schedule,” the GAO concluded.

A separate report, issued by the GAO the same day, also raised concerns about SLS and Exploration Ground Systems. SLS “has made solid progress in resolving some technical issues and maturing the SLS design,” that report states, but is facing reduced cost and schedule reserves in advance of the EM-1 mission, complicated by what the GAO considers to be a lack of accurate assessments of the development of the SLS core stage.

The GAO added that “unforeseen technical challenges are likely to arise once the program reaches its next phase,” when the SLS is completed and integrated with Orion and ground systems, “that will likely place further pressure on cost and schedule reserves.”

Development of ground systems, often overlooked in comparison to SLS and Orion, also has its issues. The GAO noted projects to modify the Vehicle Assembly Building and Mobile Launcher to support SLS/Orion missions have used up all of their schedule margins. “As a result, any future delays would have to be accommodated by using the overall program’s schedule reserve,” the GAO stated, adding that the overall Exploration Ground Systems program has only two months of schedule reserve remaining.

The GAO reports also raised the issue of costs and available funding. NASA’s exploration programs, particularly SLS and Orion, have done well in recent years, receiving more from Congress than what the administration requested. “’16 was good to us,” Hill said of the fiscal year 2016 appropriations at the July 25 committee meeting.

Proposed spending bills in the House and Senate for 2017 also look good, Hill said, but acknowledged that NASA, like the rest of the federal government, will start the new fiscal year in October on a continuing resolution (CR) that funds programs at 2016 levels. That CR could last for as long as six months, he estimated.

However, the GAO report stated that NASA’s funding requests for Orion in particular do not support its internal goal of a 2021 launch of EM-1. “Instead, the agency plans to request funding at the level estimated to meet the program’s commitment date of April 2023,” it stated. “As a result, NASA relies on the Congress to appropriate more funds than requested to stay on its internal Orion schedule.”

That strategy, the GAO acknowledged, has worked so far. But, it warned, “it may be unrealistic for NASA to expect additional funding each year given the constrained fiscal environment.”

While the NASA Advisory Council committee meeting took place before the GAO released its reports, agency officials did give them advance notice the reports were coming out, as NASA had seen, and responded to, a draft version. Hill, speaking at the meeting, sounded a little exasperated by those reviews.

“We are really getting kind of overwhelmed with some of these things,” he said, referring to audits by both the GAO and NASA’s Office of Inspector General that he listed on a slide. “Although we have big programs, we have a small group of folks that interact” with auditors, he said.

Those reviews, though, may pale in comparison with the examination the next administration might undertake next year of NASA’s exploration programs. And the stakes may be far higher.