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.

  • therealdmt

    A decade late and $10 billion short. Ladies and Gentlemen, your congressionally mandated space program!

  • therealdmt

    Bringing the 1960′s to the 2020′s!

  • What was was

    I was twelve when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon. I hope to see the day that some astronaut from China or so repeats the act, as I am quite sure that I won’t be around anymore should an American set foot on the moon again.

  • Chris Courtois

    Didn’t we already know exactly this was going to happen after the Augustine commission which was specifically addressing this very timeline? And what was that done for anyways? Just to talk about how they were going to inevitably, unequivocally hit a wall? Geez the IQ in congress is too damn low! (oh… and… oink oink oink)

  • DaIllogicalVulkan

    This has to stop or Aerospace will continue on the path of one of Americas dying industries, someone has to tell the congressional middlemen that the numbers just don’t add up (financially), and should dump this billion dollar turkey overboard before we end up with a glorified pile of scrap metal, BBQ pits, and overpriced fireworks to nowhere. Again, these numbers just don’t add up, something (or someone) is wrong here and I am not talking about the elected representatives nor NASA administrators. Quite honestly aerospace should just move out, or outsource like everyone else!
    this is embarrassing.

  • DaIllogicalVulkan

    Hopefully there is still a chance that the next American that will land will be wearing a corporate logo instead of a mission patch.

  • Hug Doug

    not at all. the Orion and the SLS are state-of-the-art, which is one reason why they are continuing to increase in price as their development continues. another, larger reason is the sheer amount of bureaucracy that NASA has to wade through to get anything done.

  • Brainard

    the Orion and the SLS are state-of-the-art

    Blowing its cost and schedule since 2005 argues otherwise.

    But since you are paid to post here, we already know that. Does your church give you stipends?

  • Hug Doug

    what? are you paid to post here? where can i go to get this payment?

  • Brainard

    At your church. They’re tax exempt.

  • Hug Doug

    what? what does church have to do with anything?

  • Brainard

    You belong to a cult of NASA launch vehicles and manned spacecraft that is no longer supported by any established scientific and technical reality whatsoever. Good luck with that.

  • Hug Doug

    what the hell have you been smoking?

  • Brainard

    PBAN and HTPB, depending on the day of the week. Lol.

  • Hug Doug

    this explains a lot. thank you very much.

  • Robert Gishubl

    Unfortunately out of SLS/Orion and Comercial Crew we know which program con gress will cut to “ensure Americas access to space” and it will not be the the one that costs less and can deliver capability faster and has already flown its rockets and 1 prototype spacecraft.