Tuesday, November 23, 2010

GAO: New Generation of Rockets Could Delay Science Missions

Florida Today reports that Government Accountability Office report warns NASA science missions could suffer delays and cost increases as the government transitions from the Delta II to commercial options such as the SpaceX Falcon 9 and the Orbital Taurus II.

To quote from the report:

NASA plans to leverage ongoing investments to acquire a new medium launch capability for science missions in the relative cost and performance range of the Delta II. The agency expects to eventually certify the vehicles being developed for space station resupply for use by NASA science missions. NASA has been in coordination with agency and contractor officials responsible for these efforts. Further, the agency revised its policy to allow for faster certification of new providers. Due to an active small class launch vehicle market and NASA’s relative low need for vehicles in this class, the agency has no plans to develop additional small class launch vehicles. Rather, the agency will acquire these services through the NASA Launch Services II Contract.

NASA’s plan has inherent risks that need to be mitigated. NASA has not developed detailed estimates of the time and money required to resolve technical issues likely to arise during the launch vehicle certification process. As these costs are currently unknown, according to Science Mission Directorate officials, NASA has not yet budgeted for them. Further, both space station resupply vehicles have experienced delays and more delays are likely as launch vehicle development is an inherently risky endeavor. Neither potential provider currently has the facilities needed to launch the majority of NASA earth science missions requiring a medium capability.

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