Fri. Feb 3rd, 2023
Floodlights shine on the largest rocket ever built.

An artist’s impression of the Space Launch System on the Florida launch pad.

This week, the US Government Accountability Office reported on the progress the space agency is making to prepare the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft and launch systems at Kennedy Space Center for future missions. NASA is making progress with these complex integration activities, the report finds, but the space agency still has a long way to go to test flight in late 2019 or early 2020.

One surprise in the report is that NASA still hasn’t provided Congress (or anyone else) with cost estimates for the first crewed mission of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, which could take place in 2023 or later. This “Exploration Mission 2,” which will see a crew of four flown into deep space and potentially launch the first component of a space station into lunar orbit, would be the first human mission after 12 years of rocket development and nearly two decades of work on Orion.

“Establishing a cost and schedule baseline for NASA’s second mission is an important first step in understanding and gaining support,” the report states on NASA’s exploration plans, which include building the deep space station and then to the lunar surface or to Mars. to go. “NASA’s continued refusal to establish this baseline is short-sighted, as EM-2 is part of a larger conversation about the affordability of a manned mission to Mars.”

The government report notes that it previously recommended that NASA and Congress calculate and disclose the cost of the first (and subsequent) human missions three years ago, in 2014. Since then, the report says, a senior official at NASA’s Exploration Systems Development program, which manages the rocket and spacecraft programs, responded that NASA doesn’t plan to set a baseline price for Exploration Mission 2 because it doesn’t have to.

These are the main components of NASA's Exploration Systems Development program.

These are the main components of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development program.


This response must have found researchers at the General Accountability Office – Congress’s auditing service – a little in-your-face. Elsewhere in the report, Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisitions and procurement management for the Accountability Office, notes, “While the later stages of the Mars mission are well into the future, reaching that point will require a financial commitment from Congress and other stakeholders. Much of their willingness to make that commitment is likely based on the ability to assess the extent to which NASA has achieved past goals within predicted cost and schedule targets.”

So, essentially, Congress doesn’t have good information about how much NASA’s plans to explore the Moon and Mars might cost. In a written response to the report, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight operations, William Gerstenmaier, said that this not a problem.

“NASA believes it has the processes in place to help stakeholders understand cost, schedule and risk,” Gerstenmaier wrote earlier this month. “Cost estimates and expenditures are available for future missions; however, these costs must be derived from the data and are not readily available. This was done deliberately to reduce NASA’s expenditures. NASA does not think that structuring acquisition and deployment to reduce accounting a mission-by-mission basis is prudent as this would result in higher total program costs and is inconsistent with the nature of the program.

The ball is now in Congress’ court. In the past, they’ve paid limited attention to what NASA will actually do with SLS and Orion because they’ve been more interested in developing those vehicles. Now, however, Congressional auditors are poking them, telling them to care about the true cost of any missions NASA might undertake. It will also be interesting to see if White House nominee to run the space agency, Jim Bridenstine, decides to open up more about the true cost of NASA’s human exploration plans.

By akfire1

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