Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Orion's Slip is Showing, Part 2

On March 5, I posted a blog article titled, “Orion's Slip is Showing”. It was about statements by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a March 4 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing implying that the Orion crew capsule won't be ready in time for the scheduled uncrewed test flight of Space Launch System in November 2018.

That test is called Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1.

An audit released today by the NASA Office of the Inspector General adds more evidence to suggest that EM-1 will slip into 2019.

The audit in name was a review of the Ground Systems Development and Operations project at Kennedy Space Center. GSDO is responsible for modernizing Kennedy Space Center into a multiuser spaceport. Launch Complex 39B, in theory, could be used not only for SLS but other commercial launch vehicles.

No potential customer has stepped forward, at least publicly.

In 2012, there was some speculation that United Launch Alliance might use 39B for the Atlas V or Delta IV, but that never materialized.

An artist's concept of the ATK Liberty rolling out to Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39B. Original image source: ATK.

In May 2012, ATK proposed a rocket called Liberty using an abandoned composite capsule design as the crew vehicle for delivering astronauts to the International Space Station. Their concept drawings showed Liberty rolling out to 39B on the Ares 1 mobile launcher. But Liberty was a paper exercise, and after they lost in the commercial crew competition not much more has been said about Liberty.

But NASA is still required to develop 39B was a multi-user pad. The OIG notes that GSDO is divided into two omponents — Exploration Ground Systems, which focuses on preparing for launch of the SLS and Orion, and the 21st Century Space Launch Complex, which focuses on modernizing the infrastructure to support multiple users.

The OIG reports:

In August 2014, NASA committed to a first launch of the SLS — Exploration Mission 1 — by November 2018. Several issues make it particularly challenging for the GSDO Program to complete its SLS and Orion-related work by this date. To begin with, the Program is working to modernize a diverse set of existing facilities and equipment, much of which is more than 50 years old. This is also the first time NASA is designing launch infrastructure intended to accommodate a variety of vehicles rather than a single vehicle like Apollo or the Space Shuttle. Finally, NASA is managing GSDO, SLS, and Orion as three independent but coordinated programs. In contrast, for the Apollo, Space Shuttle, and Constellation Programs, NASA used a centralized approach with Headquarters assuming overall management responsibility. NASA is managing the three Programs in parallel — all with the same launch date and complex integration activities — through a cross-program integration structure. To this end, much of GSDO’s work is heavily dependent on the final requirements of the SLS and Orion Programs, both of which are still in development.

The OIG report cites in particular delays with the Spaceport Command and Control System (SCCS) software that will operate and monitor ground equipment as well as the firing room. SCCS is estimated to be five months behind. Since SCCS is to be formally tested on EM-1, if EM-1 is delayed because of Orion then SCCS validation will be delayed as well.

The report concludes:

While GSDO has made steady progress in renovating launch-related infrastructure, the Program must overcome significant technical risks and interdependency issues with the SLS and Orion Programs to meet NASA’s commitment for launch by November 2018.

During the March 4 hearing, Administrator Bolden stated that the Orion program would have its Key Decision Point C very soon, which would give a more reliable date for the availability of the EM-1 capsule. According to page 12 of the OIG report, that's scheduled for this month. “Reviews for the SLS and Orion Programs [are] to follow in May and August 2015, respectively,” according to the OIG. Bolden told the hearing that NASA would report back to Congress during the summer, so that would suggest the delay until 2019 will be formally announced in August.

If anyone at NASA has a sense of tradition, the announcement will come on August 27. That was the date in 2014 that NASA announced EM-1 had slipped into 2018. August 27th is a Thursday, if anyone wants to mark it on your calendar.


  1. I would not contest this information presented by Stephen but I'd add that no one should hope for another slip. Whether you like Orion or SLS or not, it spells bad news for NASA. The politicians on Cap Hill, that is, the gods of Mount Olympus, will be angered and could readily take it out on other parts of the Obama-Bolden NASA budget. They will not sit idle and let another slip happen of the "Senate Launch System" and rather than add more funds to NASA overall, they could just shift funds from another segment of NASA. Space enthusiasts should not want that. SLS will be cancelled in the 2020s whether there is another slip or not. Stephen should assess whether Orion could be adapted to another LV or whether it is even worth adapting if SLS is cancelled. Thanks Stephen for the blog post.

  2. Thanks for the post ... I would question the need for Orion at all, is SLS is cancelled.

    The primary purpose of SLS/Orion are to keep Shuttle/Constellation contractors employed. The members of Congress who created this program have been rather brazen about that. I wrote about that back in September 2011:

    The members love to talk about sending people to explore the solar system, and give no justification other than inspiring children. Well, I can think of a lot of ways to inspire children other than spending $4 billion per year on a "monster rocket" and a crew capsule that have no mission.

    Fifty years of history have shown us that a government bureaucracy can run a successful pioneering space program only if given hideous sums of money while threatened by an external antagonist. That's an outdated model that will never work again.

    The solution -- competition -- is staring us right in the face. I have nothing in common politically with people like Dana Rohrabacher and Ted Cruz, but they seem to be the only ones in Congress willing to stand up for competition.

    Competition is part of human nature. Heck, it's part of *nature*. That's how evolution works. Guaranteed jobs for life is not natural. I've been laid off three times in my career. I never thought someone owed me a job. If I wanted a job, I had to go out and compete for it. If I didn't upgrade my skills to keep myself relevant in the workplace, of course I deserved to sit at home unemployed.

    But the prevailing sentiment in Congress is that "the standing army" has to be protected -- while, of course, accepting generous campaign contributions from the companies who employ the standing army.

    Sorry for the rant, but I just woke up and my manners have yet to kick in. :-)

  3. +Deep Space 9 is right -the Senate Gods shall avenge the rocket to nowhere with no one aboard being late for it's appointed launch date to journey farther to nowhere than no one has gone -recently. Diverting funding, a few hundred million more from Earth Science, Aeronautics, ISS and commercial crew for the Senate Launch System infrastructure will demonstrate the might of the Gods to the NASA mortals who's small and unimportant plans interfere with scheduled speeches and all important photo ops of mutual godly back-slapping and flag waving.