Friday, August 16, 2013


Ridge Bowman of NASA's Office of the Inspector General delivers a summary of the Orion audit.

NASA's Office of the Inspector General issued a report on August 15 confirming what anyone paying attention has known for years.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is underfunded, overweight and has no purpose.

To quote from the summary on Page i (Page 3 of the PDF file):

Originally known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), the MPCV is an outgrowth of NASA’s defunct Constellation Program. Following cancellation of the Constellation Program in February 2010, Congress passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 requiring the Agency to use, to the extent practicable, the existing contracts, investments, workforce, and capabilities of the CEV to develop the MPCV. The Act also set the goal of achieving full operational capability for the MPCV no later than December 2016.

The MPCV Program has seen its funding reduced from what the Program expected to receive during the Constellation Program, and now anticipates receiving a flat budget profile of approximately $1 billion per year for the remainder of the 2010s and into the 2020s. Given this budget profile, NASA is using an incremental development approach under which it allocates funding to the most critical systems necessary to achieve the next development milestone rather than developing multiple systems simultaneously as is common in major spacecraft programs. NASA officials expect this approach will allow the Program to make early progress and use test flights to reduce risk on several key systems. However, prior work from the NASA Office of Inspector General has shown that delaying critical development tasks increases the risk of future cost and schedule problems. Moreover, NASA Program officials admit that this incremental development approach is not ideal, but assert that it is the only feasible option in the current budget environment.

This shouldn't come as any surprise.

NASA warned in January 2011 that they wouldn't have the money to launch Orion atop its Space Launch System as ordered by Congress. “... [O]ur SLS studies have shown that while cost is not a major discriminator among the design options studied, none of the design options studied thus far appeared to be affordable in our present fiscal conditions, based upon existing cost models, historical data, and traditional acquisition approaches.”

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), architects of the Space Launch System, reacted angrily.

According to the January 11, 2011 Orlando Sentinel:

“[T]he production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional. It's the law,” they said. “NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works. We believe it can be done affordably and efficiently — and, it must be a priority.”

Nelson himself issued a two-sentence statement: “I talked to [NASA Administrator] Charlie Bolden yesterday and told him he has to follow the law, which requires a new rocket by 2016. And, NASA has to do it within the budget the law requires.”

Seven months later, an independent analysis by Booz Allen Hamilton concluded:

Due to unjustified, sometimes substantial, assumed future cost savings; the [Independent Cost Assessment] Team views each Program’s estimate as optimistic. Reserve levels were not based on a quantitative risk analysis and do not cover each Program’s Protect Scenario. Furthermore, each Protect Scenario excludes estimating uncertainty and unknown-unknown risks, which history indicates are major sources of cost growth on programs. Due to procurement of items still in development and large cost risks in the out years, NASA cannot have full confidence in the estimates for long-term planning.

Time and again, Congress has been told over the years that underfunding NASA would lead to cost overruns, delays and failures, but Congress fails to listen. As I wrote in December 2012, a number of independent entities have warned Congress that they were ordering NASA to perform too many tasks with too few dollars.

But Congress ignores them, ordering NASA to build a “monster rocket” (to use Nelson's pet phrase for SLS) without adequate funding. When NASA points out the funding is inadequate, Congress orders them to ignore the lack of funding.

It's an appalling failure of leadership that, at other times in this nation's history, might get them voted out of office. But we seem not to live in one of those eras.

A NASA animation of the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 scheduled for September 2014.

According to the new OIG report:

  • “[T]est dates have slipped 4 years on the Ascent Abort-2 test and 9 months on the Exploration Flight Test-1. NASA has also delayed development of many of the life support systems required for crewed missions.”
  • “[U]nless NASA begins a program to develop landers and surface systems, NASA astronauts will be limited to orbital missions using the MPCV. Under the current budget environment, it appears unlikely that NASA will obtain significant funding to begin development of this additional exploration hardware, thereby delaying such development into the 2020s. Given the time and money necessary to develop landers and associated systems, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct any surface exploration missions until the late 2020s at the earliest.”
  • “The $3.6 billion received by the MPCV Program [during Fiscal Years 2011 through 2013] was a reduction of over $1.8 billion or 34 percent of the funding NASA expected to receive in the last CEV budget request submitted prior to cancellation of the Constellation Program. Moreover, the MPCV Program anticipates a flat budget profile of approximately $1 billion per year for the remainder of the decade and into the 2020s. Assuming this budget profile and current development schedule, NASA plans to spend approximately $16.5 billion developing its crew vehicle by the time of the first crewed flight currently planned for 2021.”
  • “In addition, the Program faces significant technical challenges, including heat shield issues, delays in producing engineering drawings, and concerns about vehicle weight.”

In the “Management Action” section, the OIG concludes:

We believe it vital that Congress and the public recognize that incremental spacecraft development is not an optimal way to sustain a human space program.

Good luck with that.

A NASA animation showing the first uncrewed Space Launch System launch in late 2017. Don't count on seeing this for real.

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