NASA OIG: Funding Problems Threaten Delays in Orion Program

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NASA’s $16.5 billion deep space Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) is suffering from underfunding that threatens increasing program risks and causing delays in a program that won’t fly with astronauts until 2021, the space agency’s watchdog reports.

“Constrained funding for the MPCV forced Program managers to adopt a less-than-optimal incremental development approach in which elements necessary to complete the most immediate tests are given priority while development and testing is delayed on other important but less time sensitive aspects of the Program,” NASA’s Inspector General said in an audit released this week. “While this may be the only realistic and affordable development approach available to NASA given the Program’s current funding profile, such an approach increases risks.”

The audit also reports that:

  • the MPCV program is already suffering from delays in testing key components and systems, including postponing the Ascent Abort-2 test by 4 years and the Exploration Flight Test-1 9 months;
  • “under the Program’s incremental development strategy NASA has delayed development of many of the life support systems required for performing crewed missions.”
  • the program is further vulnerable to slips if NASA experiences delays in developing the the Space Launch System and ESA with the spacecraft’s service module;
  • the five biggest technical risks include spacecraft weight, vehicle test and verification plan, cracking of the heat shield, heat shield production schedule, and engineering drawing release rate.
  • Even after MPCV is developed, “NASA will continue to face significant challenges concerning the long-term sustainability of its human exploration program. For example, unless NASA begins a program to develop landers and surface systems, NASA astronauts will be limited to orbital missions using the MPCV.”

Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) vehicle in 2006 as part of the Constellation program, which aimed to return U.S. astronauts to the moon. The Obama Administration later canceled Constellation, but two key elements of it — Orion MPCV and a heavy-lift vehicle now known as Space Launch System (SLS) — were saved from the program.

The Inspector General’s report found two problems with MPCV: underfunding and a flat budget profile. The report notes that MPCV received $1.2 billion annually for Fiscal Years 2011 through 2013.

“The $3.6 billion received by the MPCV Program 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,” the report states. “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.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that the optimal life-cycle funding profile for space projects includes steady funding at the beginning then an increase in funding in the middle years. This produces a bell-shaped funding curve like the one shown in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3: Lifecycle Funding Profile for Space System Development

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“MPCV Program officials acknowledged that a flat funding trajectory is not optimal and increases the risk that costly design changes may be needed later in the Program when they begin to integrate and test the capsule with other Program elements,” the report states.

“MPCV Program managers expect their budget to be “flat-lined” at $1 billion per year  through at least 2018. In fact, due to inflation, MPCV’s flat budget profile actually represents a reduction in out-year purchasing power,” the audit adds. “The MPCV Program has experienced significant budget reductions in the development phase, which Program officials say has made it difficult to plan and execute a viable development schedule. For example, NASA has delayed development of life support systems and some avionics due to budget constraints. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel – an advisory group that evaluates NASA’s safety performance – considers the MPCV’s flat budget profile the Program’s biggest risk.”

The audit makes no specific programmatic recommendations for change.

“Although we made no specific recommendations for corrective action in a draft of this report, we encouraged NASA managers to be as transparent as possible when discussing the issues facing the MPCV Program and the risk associated with its incremental development approach,” the report states. “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. Further, NASA must continue to enhance communication between the MPCV, SLS, and GSDO programs to ensure that the schedules for these interdependent programs remain aligned.”

You can read the full audit here.