GAO: Launch Vehicle Problems Caused Delay in NASA Science Satellite

ICON spacecraft (Credit: NASA)

Problems with its launch vehicle and range schedule conflicts have caused a year-long in the launch of a new NASA spacecraft that will study the Earth’s ionosphere, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

The June 2017 launch date for the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite was delayed after two of the three stages of the Pegasus XL’s launch vehicle were involved in a transport accident, the GAO found. The stages were returned to Orbital ATK’s facility for inspection and testing, but no damage was found.

The accident and launch range conflicts delayed the planned launch from the Marshall Islands to December 2017. However, a problem was discovered that caused a further six-month delay.

“In September 2017, however, an anomaly identified in bolt cutter assembly confidence testing—testing to show that the bolts that hold the launch vehicle and payload together will separate as planned during launch—resulted in additional delays, but the magnitude of the delay is unknown. One of nine bolt cutter assemblies failed to fracture a bolt during testing,” the report stated.

The problem has apparently been resolved. On May 1, ICON was shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for integration with the Pegasus XL booster. NASA has set a launch date for June 14 from the Marshall Islands using Orbital ATK’s Stargazer L-1011 aircraft.

The GAO’s assessment of the ICON project is below.

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

Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON)

The Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) observatory will orbit Earth to explore its ionosphere—the boundary region between Earth and space where ionized plasma and neutral gas collide and react. Its four instruments will make direct measurements and use remote sensing to further researchers’ understanding of Earth’s upper atmosphere, the Earth-Sun connection, and the ways in which Earth weather drives space weather.

Program Information

NASA Lead Center: Goddard Space Flight Center
International Partner: Centre Spatial de Liege Université de Liège (Belgium)
Launch Location: Kwajalein, Marshall Islands
Launch Vehicle: Pegasus XL
Mission Duration: 2 years
Requirement Derived from: 2010 Science Mission Directorate Science Plan and 2009 Heliophysics Roadmap Team Report to the NASA Advisory Council
Budget Portfolio: Science, Heliophysics

Project Summary

The ICON project has missed its committed launch readiness date of October 2017 and both the project’s schedule and costs are under review. Delays to the project’s launch readiness date are related to problems with ICON’s launch vehicle.

The project experienced a 6-month delay due to a transport incident with a launch vehicle segment and launch range conflicts. In September 2017, an anomaly found in testing of the launch vehicle bolt cutter assemblies resulted in additional delays, but the magnitude of these delays is unknown while an investigation of the anomaly is underway.

In February 2018, NASA determined the project will launch no earlier than June 2018, but this date is still under review. The ICON project completed its system-level integration and test activities in April 2017 as planned, but has not shipped the spacecraft to the launch site due to the launch delay. [The satellite was shipped to Vandeberg Air Force Base on May 1 for integration with the Pegasus XL launcher. The rocket will then be flown aboard the Stargazer L-1011 aircraft to the Marshall Islands for launch.]

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The ICON project has missed its committed launch readiness date of October 2017 and both the project’s
schedule and costs are under review. The project completed its system-level integration and test activities in April 2017 as planned, but has not shipped the spacecraft to the launch site due to ongoing delays related to the launch vehicle.

Credit: GAO

According to officials, the project received $7.8 million of headquarters-held reserves to cover initial delays, but it cannot determine whether it will exceed its cost baseline until NASA and the launch vehicle provider set a new launch date. Project officials said they need about $1 million a month for ICON to remain in storage.

Launch

The ICON project had planned to launch early, in June 2017, but the project has experienced delays associated with its launch vehicle. In January 2017, two of the Pegasus launch vehicle’s three stages were involved in a transport accident. The stages were subsequently returned to the launch vehicle contractor facility for inspection and testing, and no damage was found.

The launch vehicle contractor then delivered the stages to Vandenberg Air Force Base for integration and testing activities. Due to conflicts at the launch vehicle range, the earliest available launch date was December 2017, which resulted in a 6-month launch delay from the planned June 2017 launch date.

In September 2017, however, an anomaly identified in bolt cutter assembly confidence testing—testing to show that the bolts that hold the launch vehicle and payload together will separate as planned during launch—resulted in additional delays, but the magnitude of the delay is unknown. One of nine bolt cutter assemblies failed to fracture a bolt during testing. As a result, NASA and the contractor halted testing and began an investigation of the anomaly, which is ongoing.

NASA’s Launch Services Program is working with the launch vehicle provider to identify the root cause of the anomaly, evaluate options to resolve the issue, and determine a new launch readiness date. In February 2018, NASA determined the project will launch no earlier than June 2018, but this date is still under review.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, ICON project officials stated that the project completed all
observatory integration and test activities last year. As of January 2018, the observatory remains in
the Orbital-ATK cleanroom in Gilbert, Arizona in a safe state—under continuous purge and performing
periodic monitoring of the battery voltage—awaiting determination of a new launch date and shipment for launch vehicle integration. Project officials also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.

  • Ouch. One shot devices are painful that way. Then the PM has decide whether to hold or not. If the PM pulls the hardware back and nothing was wrong, he was wasting time. If the PM decides to go and the launch or satellite fails, he was being too risky…

  • duheagle

    I’m thinking this is not good news for Stratolaunch either.

  • Michael Halpern

    Unless they just want Pegasus XL for the Darpa launch challenge, and are mainly interested in their “Black Ice” project as the rocket component