GAO: Orion Program Plagued by Delays, Cost Overruns

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Cost overruns and schedule delays continue to plague NASA’s Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

NASA expects the Orion program to exceed its $11.28 billion baseline budget, which covers expenditures through the Exploration Mission-2 mission, the report stated. The space agency expects to complete a new cost estimate by June.

A late arriving European service module (ESM) from ESA has been a major headache for the program.

“The module has proven more difficult to produce than expected and has been delayed numerous times. The service module is at risk of further delays that may affect NASA’s planned launch date for EM-1, which would begin to consume schedule reserve for EM-2,” the assessment stated.

The EM-1 mission, which will send an automated Orion spacecraft around the moon, will most likely occur in 2020. EM-2 will carry a crew into space in 2023.

“Program officials stated that recent ESM delays are due in part to late component deliveries from subcontractors, especially valves,” the document stated. “However, they also noted at least one of those valves is currently not meeting specifications, indicating that the design was not sufficiently mature prior to production. The valve, a heritage design from the Space Shuttle program that maintains pressure in the propulsion system, is not sealing properly due to the increased pressures necessary on the ESM.”

GAO also found that part of the cost increase can be attributed to the switch from a single-piece heat shield to one that uses blocks of materials.

“In addition, the program is addressing some parts material failures,” the report stated. “Specifically, the spacecraft’s avionics cards did not withstand vibration testing and required a materials change.”

The GAO’s assessment of the Orion program is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) is being developed to transport and support astronauts 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.

Project Summary

The Orion program continues to operate within its schedule baseline but NASA expects the program to exceed its cost baseline through Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) due to new hardware and the program addressing development challenges. The extent of cost growth is unknown, but NASA plans to complete a new cost estimate by June 2018.  For example, according to NASA, the cost increases have been driven in part by moving from a single-piece, or monolithic, heat shield design to one that employs blocks in order to improve its structural strength.

The program’s service module — contributed by the European Space Agency — is currently driving the program schedule as well as the launch schedule for the first mission. The module has proven more difficult to produce than expected and has been delayed numerous times. The service module is at risk of further delays that may affect NASA’s planned launch date for EM-1, which would begin to consume schedule reserve for EM-2.

In addition, the program is addressing some parts material failures. Specifically, the spacecraft’s avionics cards did not withstand vibration testing and required a materials change.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The Orion program continues to operate within its schedule baseline but NASA expects the program to exceed its cost baseline through EM-2, and is at risk for future schedule delays. The project’s life-cycle cost estimate is expected to increase beyond its $11.28 billion baseline — due in part to the EM-1 schedule delay—when a planned, new cost estimate for the program is complete in June 2018.

According to preliminary analysis, major drivers of the potential cost increase also include new hardware and addressing development challenges. For example, there was a cost impact when the program moved from a single-piece, or monolithic, heat shield design to one that employs blocks in order to improve its structural strength.

In December 2017, NASA announced December 2019 as the new internal launch readiness date for EM-1 and that the agency also allocated 6 months of schedule reserve to June 2020 for possible manufacturing and production schedule risks. While the Orion program did not have a committed launch date for EM-1, the recent delay has reduced the amount of time available to the program between EM-1 and its committed EM-2 launch date of April 2023.

Credit: GAO

In addition, the delay means that the program will continue to consume resources for EM-1 that would have otherwise been available for development on EM-2, thus increasing pressure on the EM-2 cost and schedule. If NASA delays EM-1 beyond December 2019 — which is likely given both Orion and the Space Launch System have no schedule margin to meet their deliveries for this date—the schedule reserve for Orion’s committed EM-2 launch date of April 2023 would continue to erode and put the program at risk for future schedule delays.

Developmental Partner

The late completion and delivery of the European Service Module (ESM) — a European Space Agency contribution via agreement with NASA — is driving the program’s schedule and may further delay EM-1. The European Space Agency has delayed delivery of the service module 14 months since the element’s critical design review in June 2016.

The ESM currently has no schedule reserve to support the December 2019 launch schedule, meaning that any additional delays will compress or delay integration activities prior to launch. Further, NASA is tracking a risk that the ESM could be delayed beyond the current estimated delivery date of June 2018. Such a delay would likely delay the EM-1 launch date beyond December 2019.

Program officials stated that recent ESM delays are due in part to late component deliveries from subcontractors, especially valves. However, they also noted at least one of those valves is currently not meeting specifications, indicating that the design was not sufficiently mature prior to production. The valve, a heritage design from the Space Shuttle program that maintains pressure in the propulsion system, is not sealing properly due to the increased pressures necessary on the ESM.

The program has previously stated that all sides believed that the development of the ESM would be easier than it has proven to be, being based on a prior European Space Agency spacecraft. However, the changes have been more substantial than expected and the production of the first flight unit has faced setbacks. The program stated that they expect the production of the flight unit for the second flight to be quicker, though it will require some additional elements to support crew.

Technology and Design

Avionics design has recently become an issue for the Orion program and is currently 2 months behind the ESM in terms of driving the program’s schedule. The avionics cards, along with many other onboard systems, have to withstand the vibration and radiation environment on Orion.

The program found that the circuits on the avionics cards were cracking under operating conditions due to a poor design. As a result, officials stated that the program determined the root cause of the failure and redesigned the cards’ base material to better withstand the environment. The program worked to reorganize the integration and test schedule to allow for the replacement of the cards.

Program Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, Orion program officials stated that they believe the risk informed approach that they use to address and resolve issues has proven to be successful. Also, program officials stated the program remains on track to meet its April 2023 baseline for EM-2. Program officials also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.