NASA IG Sees Problems Ahead for SLS, Orion Programs

Space Launch System in flight. (Credit: NASA)
Space Launch System in flight. (Credit: NASA)

The Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew vehicle programs are under short-term and long-term budget pressures that could cause significant schedule delays and limit NASA’s ability to conduct human deep-space exploration until the late 2030’s, the space agency’s watchdog said.

Testifying before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies last week, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said the

As we reported in August 2013, even after the SLS and Orion are fully developed and ready to transport crew 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 its astronauts will be limited to orbital missions of Mars. Given the time and money necessary to develop these systems, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct any manned surface exploration missions until the late 2030s at the earliest.

Martin also pointed to near-term problems with the development of SLS and Orion as well as the related infrastructure at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

To support the SLS and Orion, NASA’s GSDO Program is modifying launch infrastructure at Kennedy formerly used for the Space Shuttle. For example, the Program is refurbishing the crawler-transporter that will transport the SLS to the launch pad and modifying the mobile launcher and tower (originally built for the Constellation Program’s Ares I rocket), the Vehicle Assembly Building, and Launch Pad 39B. The OIG is in the final stages of an audit examining the GSDO Program’s progress and will be issuing our findings in March.

One of NASA’s challenges in this area is managing the concurrent development of a launch system and crew vehicle while modifying necessary supporting ground systems. Coordinating and integrating development of three individual programs to meet a common milestone date presents a challenge since NASA historically has used a single program structure to manage similar efforts such as the Apollo and Space Shuttle Programs.

Moreover, the SLS and its associated Programs continue to face challenging budget scenarios. For example, the Orion Program anticipates receiving a flat budget of approximately $1.1 billion per year 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. Prior work by the OIG has shown that delaying critical development tasks increases the risk of future cost and schedule problems. NASA Program officials admit that this incremental development approach is not ideal, but contend that it is the only feasible option given current funding levels.

You can read Martin’s full testimony here.