GAO: NASA’s Deep Space Exploration Programs Face Serious Challenges

Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. (Credit: NASA)
Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. (Credit: NASA)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that NASA is facing significant challenges with the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion deep-space vehicle and their associated ground systems that could delay planned flight tests.

GAO cited technical and financial challenges in the $23.8 billion effort in its report titled, “NASA: Assessment of Major Projects.” Issues include challenges with developing the rocket’s interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS), the need to redesign Orion’s heat shield, delays in writing ground system software, and limited cost and schedule reserves.

The space agency is working toward a November 2018 launch readiness date of an uncrewed Orion capsule aboard an SLS capable of lifting up to 70 metric tons into low-Earth orbit. The new rocket’s core stage will be powered by four RS-25 engines and extended five-segment solid rocket boosters derived from the space shuttle program.

Artist concept of the SLS in flight. (Credit: NASA)
Artist concept of the SLS in flight. (Credit: NASA)

A flight test with crew members aboard is planned for April 2023. However, NASA officials continue to work toward an internal launch readiness date of August 2021.

The SLS’s ICPS upper stage remains a work in progress.

“The SLS program plans to complete its assessment of the ICPS design at a design review planned for spring 2016,” the report stated. “If new development issues arise, the program has limited cost and schedule reserves remaining to address them. A critical period also lies ahead as NASA responds to congressional direction to not use funds to human-rate ICPS for carrying crew as originally planned for the second SLS exploration mission (EM-2) scheduled for 2021.”

The program also is renegotiating its contract with Boeing for the SLS core stage “in part, to resolve differences between the program and contractor regarding the level of funding available to begin work on the exploration upper stage.”

The SLS program has cost reserves of less than 4 percent per year, and it has allocated 7 of 11 months of schedule reserve to deal with delays in developing the core stage.

NASA's Orion with the European Service Module (Credit: ESA–D. Ducros)
NASA’s Orion with the European Service Module (Credit: ESA–D. Ducros)

On Orion, GAO noted the program’s critical design review in October 2015 did not include a number of key elements. A follow-up review is planned for May.

“The program did not fully review the design for the European Service Module (ESM), which has its system-level critical design review scheduled for April 2016; the heat shield, which is being redesigned; key crew life support systems, which were deferred from EM-1 to EM-2; or the program’s cost and schedule estimates to ensure they are credible and adequate resources exist to complete development,” the report stated.

GAO also noted the European Space Agency (ESA) has experienced design challenges and delays with the service module.

“As a result of design challenges, several ESM subsystem preliminary design reviews were completed as much as 6 months later than planned, with the last completed in June 2015,” the GEO reported. “Similarly, individual subsystem critical design reviews have been delayed by up to 5 months in 2015.”

The $2.8 billion exploration ground systems effort is facing risks with its physical infrastructure and the software needed to run it.

“The program is tracking these software development efforts as well as modifications to the building where SLS is assembled as top program risks,” the report stated. “The EGS program is also tracking multiple risks related to the interdependencies between the Orion, SLS, and EGS programs. For example, EGS is working with SLS to resolve a problem identified with the connections between EGS support infrastructure and the SLS upper stage. Those issues, if not addressed, could affect EGS’s ability to meet its November 2018 launch readiness date.”

The relevant sections of the GAO report covering SLS, Orion and the exploration ground systems are reproduced below.

SPACE LAUNCH SYSTEM

SLS_costs_gao2016The Space Launch System (SLS) is intended to be the nation’s first human-rated heavy-lift launch vehicle since the Saturn V was developed for the Apollo program. SLS is planned to launch NASA’s Orion spacecraft and other systems on missions to an asteroid and eventually to Mars. SLS is being designed to provide an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons to low-Earth orbit and be evolvable to 130 metric tons, enabling deep space missions. The initial 70-metric ton capability will include a core stage, powered by four RS-25 engines and two five-segment boosters. The 130-metric ton capability will use a new upper stage and advanced boosters.

Project Summary

The SLS program completed its critical design review for the 70-metric ton launch vehicle’s uncrewed first exploration mission (EM-1) in July 2015, but it is at risk of design changes due to problems and delays with a major subsystem—the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS). The SLS program plans to complete its assessment of the ICPS design at a design review planned for spring 2016. If new development issues arise, the program has limited cost and schedule reserves remaining to address them. A critical period also lies ahead as NASA responds to congressional direction to not use funds to human-rate ICPS for carrying crew as originally planned for the second SLS exploration mission (EM-2) scheduled for 2021.

Cost and Schedule Status

SLS Block I launch vehicle (Credits: NASA/MSFC)
SLS Block I launch vehicle (Credits: NASA/MSFC)

The SLS program’s limited cost and schedule reserves place it at increased risk of exceeding its committed cost and schedule baseline. At its confirmation in August 2014, the program established its cost and schedule baseline for EM-1 at approximately $7 billon for development, with a launch readiness date of November 2018. The program’s baseline cost includes reserves of less than 4 percent per year. Similarly, the SLS program has limited schedule reserves. The program has already allocated 7 of 11 months of schedule reserve to mitigate delays with the development of the core stage, the SLS’s fuel tank and structural backbone. A major contributing factor in this delay was the need to repair incorrectly installed structural components within the core stage assembly facility. The program is tracking other threats to its schedule, including a risk regarding excessive hydrogen accumulating around the base of the vehicle during launch.

Design

Prior to the July 2015 critical design review for the SLS 70-metric ton vehicle, the SLS program had released nearly 90 percent of design drawings—a best practice—but it is at risk of design changes due to problems and delays with a major subsystem. The interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS), which provides in-space propulsion for the SLS, did not have a stable design at the time of the SLS program’s critical design review, due in part to immature safety and reliability analysis and the discovery of potential ICPS vibration issues. The program also purposefully deferred portions of the ICPS critical design review until spring 2016, which is when the second phase of the spacecraft and payload integration and evolution critical design review is scheduled, because designs for new avionics and secondary payloads were not yet ready for review.

Contractor

Wind tunnel testing of an SLS scale model at Ames Research Center. (Credit: NASA/ARC/Dominic Hart)
Wind tunnel testing of an SLS scale model at Ames Research Center. (Credit:
NASA/ARC/Dominic Hart)

The SLS program is renegotiating the core stage contract with Boeing. According to NASA officials, the contract is being modified, in part, to resolve differences between the program and contractor regarding the level of funding available to begin work on the exploration upper stage. Program officials anticipate the renegotiated contract will be finalized in early 2016, at which point the effect on the program’s overall cost and schedule should be known.

Other Issues to Be Monitored

The Joint Explanatory Report to the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, while not law, prohibited the use of NASA funds to human-rate the ICPS. The SLS program had originally planned to use ICPS as the second stage propulsion system for both the EM-1 uncrewed and EM-2 crewed missions and then develop a new exploration upper stage for future missions. As part of the fiscal year 2016 NASA Exploration appropriation, Congress appropriated no less than $2 billion for SLS, of which no less than $85 million is to be for the development of a new upper stage.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, SLS program officials stated that they had developed a solution to prevent excessive hydrogen from accumulating around the base of the launch vehicle by repositioning the hydrogen burn-off ignitors. They also stated that solutions have been identified for ICPS vibration issues. The program plans to complete its design review of the ICPS avionics and secondary payloads in spring 2016. Program officials also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.

ORION MULTI-PURPOSE CREW VEHICLE

orion_cost_gao2016The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) is being developed to conduct crewed in-space operations beyond low-Earth orbit, including traveling to Mars or an asteroid. The Orion program is continuing to advance development of the human safety features, designs, and systems started under the Constellation program, which was canceled in 2010. Orion is planned to launch atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The current design of Orion consists of a crew module, service module, and launch abort system.

In September 2015, NASA established its cost and schedule baselines for the Orion program’s first crewed mission with a life-cycle cost estimate of $11.3 billion and a launch readiness date of no later than April 2023. The program continues to work toward an internal launch readiness date of August 2021. NASA will not commit to an actual launch date for the first crewed mission until after the first uncrewed mission is complete. The baseline does not include a date for the first uncrewed mission, although the program is working to a launch readiness date of September 2018. The Orion program continues to make progress on development of the vehicle and in October 2015 held the critical design review associated with the first uncrewed mission; however, the program does not plan to close out the critical design review until a follow-on review is held in May 2016.

Cost and Schedule Status

In September 2015, NASA established cost and schedule baselines for the Orion program’s first crewed Exploration Mission (EM-2) with a life-cycle cost of $11.3 billion and a launch readiness date of no later than April 2023. This life-cycle cost estimate does not include production, operations, or sustainment of additional crew vehicles, despite NASA’s plans to use and possibly enhance the vehicle after 2023. The baseline does not include a date for the first uncrewed Exploration Mission (EM-1), which is planned to demonstrate the spacecraft’s system performance prior to EM-2. The program is working to a launch readiness date of September 2018 for EM-1. NASA has not yet determined actual launch dates for EM-1 or EM-2. It plans to establish an integrated launch date target for EM-1 after all three associated programs—Orion, SLS, and Exploration Ground Systems—reach a sufficient level of design maturity. NASA plans to identify a launch date target for EM-2 after EM-1 is complete.

Funding

Orion_in_orbit
The Orion program is working to an earlier internal launch readiness date of August 2021 for EM-2 that depends on the program being appropriated more funding than NASA requested in fiscal year 2016 and plans to request in fiscal years 2017 through 2021. While Congress has provided the program with more funding than NASA requested in fiscal years 2013 through 2016, it may be unrealistic for NASA to expect additional funding each year given the constrained fiscal environment.

Design

The Orion program continues to make progress on development of its vehicle, having completed the critical design review for EM-1 in October 2015. However, the program did not fully review the design for the European Service Module (ESM), which has its system-level critical design review scheduled for April 2016; the heat shield, which is being redesigned; key crew life support systems, which were deferred from EM-1 to EM-2; or the program’s cost and schedule estimates to ensure they are credible and adequate resources exist to complete development. The Orion program plans to close out the EM-1 critical design review during a follow-on review in May 2016. The program will not assess the key crew life support systems and other unique crew capabilities that will first fly on EM-2 until the EM-2 critical design review currently planned for 2017.

The Orion program is redesigning its heat shield. During the first exploration test flight in December 2014, the vehicle flew with a monolithic heat shield design. However, NASA has determined that not all aspects of the monolithic design will meet the more stringent requirements for EM-1 and EM-2 when the vehicle will be exposed to a greater temperature variance and longer durations. The program has decided to use a block heatshield design for EM-1, where it will adhere approximately 300 blocks to the support structure and apply filler material to the gaps between blocks. However, this design also has some risk because of uncertainty about the ability to adhere the blocks to the support structure. To mitigate this risk, the program will continue to develop the monolithic design as well.

Development Partner

A test version of ESA’s service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. (Credit: Airbus)
A test version of ESA’s service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. (Credit: Airbus)

The European Space Agency has experienced design challenges with the ESM. Under a barter agreement signed in December 2012, the European Space Agency is to contribute portions of the Orion service module for EM-1. After delivery, NASA’s prime contractor for Orion will be responsible for integrating the ESM with the remaining service module components. As a result of design challenges, several ESM subsystem preliminary design reviews were completed as much as 6 months later than planned, with the last completed in June 2015. Similarly, individual subsystem critical design reviews have been delayed by up to 5 months in 2015.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, Orion program officials noted that NASA continues to direct the program to execute to the August 2021 launch readiness date, which the agency acknowledges is aggressive and carries risk including the uncertainty of annual funding. They added that NASA has quantified this risk through the establishment of the Agency Baseline Commitment that places the first crewed flight no later than April 2023. Program officials also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.

EXPLORATION GROUND SYSTEMS

exploration_ground_systems_costs_gao2016The Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) program is modernizing and upgrading infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center and developing software needed to integrate, process, and launch the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion). The EGS program includes several major construction and facilities projects involving the Mobile Launcher, Crawler Transporter, Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and launch pad, all of which need to be complete before the first uncrewed exploration mission (EM-1) using the SLS and Orion vehicles.

Project Summary

The EGS program held its critical design review in December 2015, but several technical issues are putting pressure on the program’s overall schedule. In an assessment prior to that review, NASA indicated that all EGS systems were mature with the exception of two software development efforts. The program is tracking these software development efforts as well as modifications to the building where SLS is assembled as top program risks. The EGS program is also tracking multiple risks related to the interdependencies between the Orion, SLS, and EGS programs. For example, EGS is working with SLS to resolve a problem identified with the connections between EGS support infrastructure and the SLS upper stage. Those issues, if not addressed, could affect EGS’s ability to meet its November 2018 launch readiness date.

Cost and Schedule Status

Launch pad modifications at Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: NASA)
Launch pad modifications at Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: NASA)

The EGS program held its critical design review in December 2015. Technical issues with the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Mobile Launcher, verification and validation testing, the Ground Flight Application Software (GFAS), and the Spaceport Command and Control System (SCCS) have increased schedule risk.

Design and Schedule

Prior to the EGS program’s critical design review, NASA indicated that all major EGS sub-systems were mature, with the exception of two software systems known as SCCS and GFAS, which have experienced development delays. The EGS program is concerned that delays in SCCS software development could affect the launch date for the first uncrewed exploration mission. The program is developing two software systems concurrently—the SCCS to operate and monitor ground equipment needed to launch and communicate with the integrated SLS and Orion vehicles, and GFAS to interface with flight systems and ground crews. SCCS development is behind its planned software release schedule. Program officials attributed the delays to workforce constraints and requirements maturing late. According to officials, the program has hired additional staff for SCCS and will be adding staff to GFAS in 2016 to help resolve this issue. In addition, the program is tracking a risk that development of GFAS could be delayed and costs could increase because it is dependent in part on SCCS development progress. GFAS must function within an operating structure defined by SCCS. Program officials expect the added workforce and, for GFAS, a schedule replan, to reduce the risk to both software programs.

Other Issues to Be Monitored

The EGS program is also tracking multiple risks related to the interdependencies between the Orion, SLS, and EGS programs. NASA is developing the three programs separately, but plans for them to function together in order to launch SLS and Orion. While the program has made progress on the major equipment and facilities modernization initiatives, EGS officials said ongoing issues may affect the design and installation of systems that interact directly with the Orion and SLS vehicles. For example, recent modeling showed that the connection that supplies power, fuel, and cooling connectivity between the SLS upper stage and the mobile launcher may apply more force than anticipated while moving away from the upper stage during launch. As a result, the EGS program is redesigning the connection. The mobile launcher is currently driving the project’s overall schedule, so any issues it encounters have the potential to affect the program’s ability to meet its November 2018 launch readiness date.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, EGS program officials emphasized that the program is holding sufficient schedule reserve to cover potential GFAS and VAB delays. They also stated that multiple integrated technical task teams and programmatic working groups exist to facilitate integration among SLS, Orion, EGS, and the enterprise. The program officials also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.