NASA’s Top Management Challenges: Deep Space Exploration

An expanded view of the next configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, including the four RL10 engines. (Credit: NASA)

A recent Inspector General report, NASA’s 2017 Top Management and Performance Challenges, finds the space agency is facing serious challenges with its deep space exploration effort. The space agency is dealing with slipping schedules, constrained budgets, and thin funding reserves as it seeks to complete development of the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft and Exploration Ground Systems. NASA also has only high-level plans for other systems that will be required to send astronauts on useful deep-space missions.

Key excerpts from the report follow.

Deep Space Exploration

Orion near the moon (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s long-term objective for its human exploration program is a crewed surface mission to Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s. To meet this goal, the Agency must develop more sophisticated rockets, capsules, and related hardware, manage the aging International Space Station (ISS or Station) to maximize its use as a test-bed for research and development of new technologies, and mitigate human health risks of extended space travel – all within the constraints of a static budget profile.

In the near-term, successful development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion), and launch infrastructure under development by the Agency’s Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program are critical to achieving NASA’s human exploration goals beyond low Earth orbit. However, the first unmanned flight of the integrated SLS, Orion, and GSDO systems on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) – initially planned for 2016 and currently scheduled for no earlier than October 2019 – and the first crewed flight, Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) – planned for no earlier than August 2021 – face significant challenges to meet their launch dates.

In the long term, NASA’s plans beyond EM-2 for achieving a crewed Mars surface mission in the late 2030s or early 2040s remain high level, serving as more of a strategic framework than a detailed operational plan. For example, the Agency’s current Journey to Mars framework lacks objectives; does not identify key system requirements other than SLS, Orion, GSDO, and a Deep Space Gateway; and does not suggest target mission dates for crewed orbits of Mars or planet surface landings. If the Agency is to reach its goal of sending humans to Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s, significant development work on key systems – such as a deep space habitat, in-space transportation, and Mars landing and ascent vehicles – must be accomplished in the 2020s.

In addition, NASA will need to begin developing more detailed cost estimates for its Mars exploration program after EM-2 to ensure the commitment from Congress and other stakeholders exists to fund an exploration effort of this magnitude over the next several decades. Finally, NASA’s decision whether to continue spending $3–$4 billion annually to maintain the ISS after 2024 – roughly a third of its exploration budget – will affect its funding profile for human exploration efforts in the 2020s, and therefore has significant implications for the Agency’s Mars plans.

Space Launch System

SLS on the launch pad. (Credit: NASA)

Notwithstanding the 1-year launch delay, testing and delivery of the core stage remains on the critical path with little schedule margin available to manage problems that may arise during the integration and test phase before an integrated SLS/Orion launch. The late completion of the core stage is a critical schedule issue in meeting the EM-1 launch date.

The rising cost of the SLS Program also presents challenges for NASA given the program may exceed its $9.7 billion budget commitment. The Agency plans to spend roughly $2 billion a year on SLS development but has minimal monetary reserves to address any technical challenges that may arise for EM-1 or EM-2. According to guidance developed at Marshall Space Flight Center (Marshall), the standard monetary reserve for a program such as the SLS should be between 10 and 30 percent during development.

The SLS Program did not carry any program reserves in fiscal year (FY) 2015 and only $25 million in FY 2016 – approximately 1 percent of its development budget. Moving forward, the SLS Program plans to carry only minimal reserves through 2030, which in our view is unlikely to be sufficient to enable NASA to address issues that may arise during development and testing.

Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle

The Orion crew module for NASA’s Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) is secured in a work station in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The spacecraft is being prepared for its first integrated flight atop the Space Launch System rocket on Exploration Mission-1. (Credit: NASA/Leif Heimbold)

NASA began developing Orion in 2006 as part of the Agency’s former deep space exploration effort known as the Constellation Program and had spent about $5.7 billion on the effort when Constellation was cancelled in 2010. Since then, NASA has spent more than $1 billion annually, or about 6 percent of its overall budget, on the Orion Program. In 2016, we estimated the Agency will have devoted approximately $17 billion in funding for all Orion activities, including Constellation Program funding, by the time the spacecraft makes its first crewed flight on EM-2.

The biggest challenge facing Orion for EM-1 is delivery of the European Service Module, which is integral to the overall service module. In September 2016, we reported that the service module had undergone design changes and as a result would be delivered to NASA at least 5 but possibly up to 10 months later than originally planned.6 The module has been further delayed and is now scheduled to be delivered in February 2018.

Looking ahead to EM-2, one of the key challenges NASA faces is ensuring the Orion capsule’s Environmental Control and Life Support System functions properly. NASA is testing portions of this critical life support system on the ISS and on Earth, and will fly substantial parts of the system (such as thermal control pumps, heat exchangers, radiators, gas containment and delivery systems, and cabin pressurization controls) on EM‐1. However, the first flight test of the complete Environmental Control and Life Support System will be during EM‐2 with crew aboard.

Like SLS, the Orion Program has less than 1 percent in monetary reserves leading up to EM-1, much less than the recommended 10 to 30 percent. Although NASA expects to increase Orion’s reserves for EM-2 to a more appropriate level beginning in 2019 and 2020, the impact of the delay in EM-1’s launch date to no earlier than October 2019 on Orion’s overall funding profile remains unclear.

Exploration Ground Systems

Mobile crawler transporter (Credit: NASA)

In 2015 and 2017, we reported that modifications to the VAB and mobile launcher needed to support SLS have left GSDO with only 1 month of schedule margin to address any further issues that arise.9 Similarly, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in July 2016 that although the Program is making progress in modifying facilities and equipment to support SLS and Orion, it is encountering technical challenges that require additional time and money, which in turn has reduced cost and schedule reserves, threatening the EM-1 launch readiness date. Although the delay in the launch date may have mitigated some of these concerns, development of software needed to launch SLS and Orion remains a concern.

SCCS is a software system that will control pumps, motors, valves, power supplies, and other ground equipment; record and retrieve data from systems before and during launch; and monitor the health and status of spacecraft as they prepare for and during launch. In 2016, we reported that, compared to FY 2012 projections, development costs had increased approximately 77 percent to $207.4 million and the release of a fully operational version had slipped by 14 months from July 2016 to September 2017 for an EM-1 launch in November 2018. Given that the launch date has slipped to no earlier than October 2019, GSDO is in the process of extending the SCCS completion date to align with the new launch date.

Finally, after EM-1 is launched GSDO will need to make additional modifications to Kennedy’s launch infrastructure to prepare for EM-2. Among other issues, the Program has identified a budget shortfall associated with EUS upgrades that will need to be addressed.