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.