At the request of Congress, the impartial U.S. Government Accountability Office reviews the finances and management of federal programs, and this week released a critical study of NASA’s crew capsule, Orion. Most disturbingly, the 56-page report (pdf) regularly draws parallels between the Orion program and another major NASA project, the James Webb Space Telescope. The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is notorious for moving from a 10-year $500 million project to a 20-year $8.8 billion (£6.7 billion) instrument that could eventually launch in 2018.
While Orion hasn’t experienced such dramatic cost increases yet, the spacecraft is now in its second decade of development. NASA estimates it will spend a total of $16bn (£12bn) to get Orion ready for its first crewed flight in April 2023. However, the GAO review, signed by Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management Cristina T. Chaplain, found none of these figures are reliable.
The federal audit firm based this conclusion on the fact that only a handful of NASA’s cost estimation and scheduling methods were consistent with “best practices.” In addition, the GAO found that NASA appears to rely too heavily on data analysis from the main contractor for Orion, Lockheed Martin, in making some of its estimates. Accordingly, regarding Orion’s cost and schedule estimates, the GAO report concludes, “They do not fully reflect the characteristics of quality cost or schedule estimates, and neither estimate can be considered reliable.”
Some of Orion’s main concerns cited in the GAO study are well known, such as delays by NASA’s partner, the European Space Agency, in building the service module that will power Orion in space. Less widely known, however, are the significant cost overruns at Orion’s main contractor, Lockheed Martin. The GAO’s analysis of contractor data found that the Orion program faces potential cost overruns of up to $707 million by 2020.
The report comes at an important time for Orion, which will likely face questions about its viability for the next 18 months as a new president takes office and reviews NASA’s programs. Congress supports NASA’s development of the vehicle, but there’s been a lot of back-channel discussion in the space community about the time and expense that went into developing what is a capable but relatively simple spacecraft.
Few blame the NASA engineers themselves for these difficulties, but rather changing requirements and bloated government procurement processes for a program that formally launched in 2006. the space station and now more focused on deep space exploration.
It is nevertheless striking that NASA will probably need some 17 years to design and develop Orion before finally carrying out its first crewed mission in 2023. During the same time, from 1964 to 1981, the space program flew the Gemini spacecraft; designed, developed and flew the Apollo capsule; and designed, developed and flew the much more complex space shuttle.
The GAO report also notes that there is some doubt about the viability of the 2023 launch date for Orion’s first crewed mission, Exploration Mission-2, a 10- to 14-day crewed flight that will orbit the moon before returning. to earth. NASA has publicly said it has 70 percent confidence in that launch date, but an internal NASA review cited by the GAO found that this launch date could be pushed back by six months.
Despite these concerns, NASA is pressing ahead with an effort to accelerate Orion development to allow for an August 2021 launch of Exploration Mission-2. Still, the GAO found this scenario unlikely. “To stay on its aggressive internal schedule, the agency is counting on receiving more allocated resources than what it plans to ask for, which may not be realistic in a budget-constrained environment,” the report states. Confidence is low — 40 percent — that NASA will meet the 2021 launch date, and the GAO believes this may not be a “favorable strategy” for Orion in the long run.
One of the last, most concerning aspects of the Orion program noted by GAO is NASA’s practice of delaying work on the vehicle until later this decade. That is, with limited budgets now, NASA and Lockheed Martin are delaying development of some spacecraft systems. This badly positions the program in terms of dealing with “a bow wave” of delayed work, as well as inevitable technical challenges when Orion integrates with the Space Launch System rocket.
“The Orion program may be in a similar situation to that of the Constellation and (James Webb Space Telescope) programs, which had minimal cost reserves in the early years to address technical challenges that manifested and forced the programs to work out. set,” the statement said. states report.
As an example of some of the deferred work, the report cites a number of critical life support and related systems originally slated to fly in Exploration Mission-1, an Orion unmanned test flight and the Space Launch System rocket tentatively slated for late 2018. These include air revitalization, fire detection and suppression, pressure control and waste management, an active launch abort system, emergency communications and other systems. It’s problematic to fly many of these systems for the first time with astronauts on board, the GAO found.
It remains unclear whether the new report will shake Congress’s confidence in Orion. In 2009, when the GAO concluded that Orion and another new NASA rocket, the Ares I, did not have a “sound business case,” Congress fought against President Obama’s attempts to end Orion. But given ongoing concerns about Orion’s development, it doesn’t seem likely that the wars in Washington over NASA’s expensive, long-running capsule project have come to an end.