GAO Report on SLS/Orion: Making Progress, But….

SLS core stage pathfinder is lifted onto the Stennis B-2 test stand (Credits: NASA/SSC)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Government Accountability Office released another depressing review this week of NASA’s Artemis program, specifically looking at the space agency’s progress on the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft and the exploration ground systems (EGS) required to support them.

Cristina Chaplain, GAO’s director of Contracting and National Security Acquisitions, summarized the report’s conclusions on Wednesday in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

The report reads like every other report the GAO has published about this effort. Yes, NASA continues to make progress on the programs, but schedules and budgets remain at risk.

Since our June 2019 report, the program is now targeting an Artemis-1 launch date of August 2020. According to NASA officials, the delay is primarily driven by challenges encountered installing ground support equipment on the Mobile Launcher and developing software, and does not reflect the ongoing agency-wide schedule assessment.

The program has operated within the costs established for the June 2020 launch date, $3.2 billion, but officials stated that NASA is reevaluating the program’s development cost performance and will establish an updated baseline when new leadership is in place.

[….]

NASA officials stated that the 6 to 12 months of risk to the [earlier] June 2020 launch date includes risk associated with EGS completing this integration that includes test and checkout procedures after SLS and Orion components arrive. Officials explained that the EGS risk is based on a schedule risk analysis that considered factors such as historical prelaunch integrated test and check out delays and the learning curve associated with a new vehicle.

In other words, the first launch — which is already running years behind schedule — could slip further into 2021.

The new leadership the report mentions refers to the decision by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to remove William Gerstenmaier and his deputy from their posts overseeing the space agency’s human spaceflight programs. Their removal has slowed NASA’s effort to update its estimates.

Former astronaut Ken Bowersox has replaced Gerstenmaier on a temporary basis while the search for a permanent replacement is conducted.

GAO’s regular reviews of NASA’s human lunar effort have taken on greater importance since March, when Vice President Mike Pence announced the Trump Administration was advancing the goal of landing astronauts on the moon from 2028 to 2024.

The current plan is to land astronauts on the third flight of SLS and Orion. However, continue schedule delays will endanger the goal of doing so by 2024. Astronauts would use a small Gateway station in orbit around the moon as a base.

During the hearing, House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson expressed deep reservations about whether the schedule was achievable or even advisable.

“…based on the information available to date, that landing attempt could also be the first flight of the lunar landing and ascent vehicles and transfer vehicle,” she said in her prepared statement. “That is, the schedule doesn’t appear to baseline any test flights prior to the first crewed lunar landing attempt. That first lunar landing attempt will also be the first crewed visit to the Gateway. There will be no prior crewed visits to the Gateway to check it out before using it to initiate the lunar landing attempt.”

GAO’s report contained a hint of frustration that NASA has not implemented more of GAO’s suggestions for improving the three programs.

“GAO has made 19 recommendations in these eight prior reports to strengthen NASA’s acquisition management of SLS, Orion, and EGS,” the summary stated. “NASA generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations, and has implemented seven recommendations. Further action is needed to fully implement the remaining recommendations.”

A summary of the review is below. You can download the full report here.

Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, House of Representatives
Wednesday, September 18, 2019

NASA Actions Needed to Improve the Management of Human Spaceflight Programs Statement of Cristina T. Chaplain, Director, Contracting and National Security Acquisitions

Why GAO Did This Study

NASA is undertaking a trio of closely related programs to continue human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. These three programs include a launch vehicle, a crew capsule, and the associated ground systems at Kennedy Space Center. All three programs are working towards a launch readiness date of June 2020 for the first mission. NASA then plans for these systems to support future human space exploration goals, which include seeking to land two astronauts on the lunar surface. GAO has a body of work highlighting concerns over NASA’s management and oversight of these programs. This statement discusses (1) the cost and schedule status of NASA’s human spaceflight programs and (2) lessons that NASA can apply to improve its management of its human spaceflight programs. This statement is based on eight reports issued from 2014 to 2019 and selected updates as of September 2019. For the updates, GAO analyzed recent program status reports on program progress.

What GAO Found

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) three related human spaceflight programs are in the integration and test phase of development, a phase of the acquisition process that often reveals unforeseen challenges leading to cost growth and schedule delays. Since GAO last reported on the status of these programs in June 2019, each program has made progress. For example, the Orion program conducted a key test to demonstrate the ability to abort a mission should a life-threatening failure occur during launch. As GAO found in June 2019, however, the programs continue to face significant schedule delays. In November 2018, within one year of announcing an up to 19-month delay for the three programs—the Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle, the Orion crew spacecraft, and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS)—NASA senior leaders acknowledged the revised launch date of June 2020 is unlikely. In addition, any issues uncovered during integration and testing may push the date as late as June 2021. Moreover, GAO found that NASA’s calculations of cost growth for the SLS program is understated by more than 750 million dollars.

GAO’s past work has identified a number of lessons that NASA can apply to improve its management of its human spaceflight programs. For example, NASA should enhance contract management and oversight to improve program outcomes. NASA’s past approach in this area has left it ill-positioned to identify early warning signs of impending schedule delays and cost growth or reap the benefits of competition. In addition, NASA’s approach to incentivizing contractors through contract award fees did not result in desired outcomes for the SLS and Orion programs. Further, NASA should minimize risky programmatic decisions to better position programs for successful execution. This includes providing sufficient cost and schedule reserves to, among other things, address unforseen risk. Finally, realistic cost estimates and assessments of technical risk are particularly important at the start of an acquisition program. But NASA has historically provided little insight into the future cost of these human spaceflight programs, limiting the information useful to decision makers.

Chairwoman Horn, Ranking Member Babin, and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to be here today to discuss the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) management of its human space exploration programs. These programs are developing the systems that will enable the agency to achieve its human space exploration goals, which include seeking to land two astronauts on the lunar surface as soon as 2024. The focus of my statement today is on three programs that will contribute to achieving this goal:

  • The Space Launch System (SLS) program is developing a vehicle to launch a crew capsule and cargo beyond low-Earth orbit.
  • The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) program is developing a crew capsule to transport humans beyond low-Earth orbit.
  • The Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) program is developing systems and infrastructure to support assembly, test, and launch of the SLS and Orion crew capsule, and recovery of the Orion crew capsule.

Each of these programs represents a large, complex technical and programmatic endeavor and is currently in the integration and test phase of development. Our prior work has shown this phase of the acquisition process often reveals unforeseen challenges leading to cost growth and schedule delays.1

GAO has designated NASA’s management of acquisitions as a high-risk area for almost three decades. In our March 2019 high-risk report, we reported there was a lack of transparency in NASA’s major project cost and schedules, especially for its human spaceflight programs.2 We reported that the agency has not taken action on several recommendations related to understanding the long-term costs of its human exploration programs. For example, EGS and SLS do not have a cost and schedule baseline that covers activities beyond the first planned flight, and Orion does not have a baseline beyond the second planned flight. We have previously reported that without transparency into these estimates, NASA does not have the data to assess long-term affordability and it may be difficult for Congress to make informed budgetary decisions.3 Moreover, while human spaceflight programs have inherent technical, design, and integration risks, we have consistently found that management and oversight problems are the real drivers behind program cost and schedule growth.

My statement today discusses (1) the cost and schedule status of NASA’s human spaceflight programs and (2) lessons that NASA can apply to improve its management of its human spaceflight programs. This statement is based primarily on work completed from eight GAO reports issued from May 2014 through June 2019.4 To conduct our prior work on the cost and schedule performance of these programs, we compared cost and schedule estimates that were current as of the reporting timeframes in our June 2019 report to their original cost and schedule baselines, analyzed quarterly program status reports, interviewed NASA program and headquarters officials, and reviewed program documentation. To identify lessons that can be applied to NASA’s management of human spaceflight programs, we reviewed issues and recommendations made in our prior reports such as those related to approaches to managing contractors and incentivizing contractor performance, the quality of the cost and schedule estimates, and long-term cost estimates. Detailed information on the objectives, scope, and methodologies for that work is included in each of the reports that are cited throughout this statement. We updated the progress the programs have made with information obtained from NASA programs’ quarterly reports since June 2019, where available.

We conducted the work on which this statement is based in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

What GAO Recommends

GAO has made 19 recommendations in these eight prior reports to strengthen NASA’s acquisition management of SLS, Orion, and EGS. NASA generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations, and has implemented seven recommendations. Further action is needed to fully implement the remaining recommendations.

Footnotes

1 GAO, Space Launch System: Resources Need to be Matched to Requirements to Decrease Risk and Support Long Term Affordability, GAO-14-631 (Washington, D.C.: Jul. 23, 2014); Space Launch System: Management Tools Should Better Track to Cost and Schedule Commitments to Adequately Monitor Increasing Risk, GAO-15-596 (Washington, D.C.: Jul. 16, 2015); and James Webb Space Telescope: Project on Track but May Benefit from Improved Contractor Data to Better Understand Costs, GAO-16-112 (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 17, 2015).

2 GAO, High Risk Series: Substantial Efforts Needed to Achieve Greater Progress on HighRisk Areas, GAO-19-157SP (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 6, 2019).

3 GAO, NASA Actions Needed to Improve Transparency and Assess Long-Term Affordability of Human Exploration Programs, GAO-14-385 (Washington, D.C.: May 8, 2014).

4 GAO, NASA Human Space Exploration: Persistent Delays and Cost Growth Reinforce Concerns over Management of Programs, GAO-19-377 (Washington, D.C.: Jun.19, 2019); NASA Human Space Exploration: Delay Likely for First Exploration Mission, GAO-17-414 (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 27, 2017); NASA Human Space Exploration: Opportunity Nears to Reassess Launch Vehicle and Ground Systems Cost and Schedule, GAO-16-612 (Washington, D.C.: July 27, 2016); Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle: Action Needed to Improve Visibility into Cost, Schedule, and Capacity to Resolve Technical Challenges, GAO-16-620 (Washington, D.C.: Jul. 27, 2016); GAO-14-385; GAO-14-631; GAO-15-596; GAO-19-157SP.