Orion Makes Significant Progress, Awaits Ride to the Moon

Orion undergoing testing at Plum Brook. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s Orion crew vehicle has made good progress over the past year, with the completion of a launch abort test and thermal vacuum testing on the spacecraft scheduled to an automated flight test around the moon next year, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Although Orion has suffered delays and budget overruns during development, the Space Launch System (SLS) that will send it to the moon is even more behind schedule due to development problems, the report found.

As a result, NASA officials recently announced a delay in the first SLS-Orion launch from March 2021 to November 2021. It was the latest in a series of schedule slips stretching back years.

Orion has experienced development problems of its own.

“For example, late deliveries of redesigned pressure control valves for the Artemis II European Service Module contributed to a 5-month delay to module delivery and reduced program schedule margin, according to program officials,” the report said.

To guard against further schedule slips, engineers have devised a way to speed up processing of the spacecraft.

“The Orion program plans to reduce the 7-month-long pre-launch processing period by 1.5 months. The program plans to use a mass simulator—instead of the Orion spacecraft—to conduct some pre-launch tests that would otherwise be done after integrating Orion with SLS—providing the program with extra time to complete work before delivering Orion for integration and further testing according to officials,” the report said.

The report found that the Orion program has experienced significant cost overruns.

Credit: GAO

“NASA reported development cost growth of 13.6 percent, or about $918 million, due in large part to European Service Module delays and contractor performance; however, officials said that this cost growth is through a December 2022 Artemis II launch, not the program’s committed baseline of April 2023,” the report stated.

Orion will carry astronauts for the first time during the Artemis II flight. The lunar mission is designed to pave the way for astronauts to land at the lunar south pole using a human landing vehicle in 2024.

The GAO’s assessment of the Orion program follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees

Government Accountability Office
April 2020

Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) is being developed to launch atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) to transport and support astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, and the current design includes a crew module, service module, and launch abort system. The current cost and schedule baseline includes plans for one uncrewed and one crewed mission—Artemis I and II, respectively—with Orion.

Although not included in the current baseline, NASA plans for Orion to later transport crew for a planned 2024 lunar landing mission called Artemis III. The Orion program is continuing to advance development of the vehicle started under the canceled Constellation program.

Project Summary

NASA planned to conduct the uncrewed demonstration of Artemis I in June 2020, but after a series of delays the agency is reevaluating this date. Orion program officials told us that, in the meantime, the program is currently working toward a November 2020 launch date for Artemis I.

However, the program has only 1 week of schedule reserve remaining to that date. Within the last year, the Orion program successfully completed significant tests of Orion for Artemis I. Most recently, in November 2019, the program transported the integrated Orion crew service module to the Plum Brook test facility to begin testing the vehicle in space-like conditions.

The program has also made progress toward readying Orion for Artemis II—the mission by which the program’s cost and schedule performance is measured—by reducing schedule risk related to the Artemis II side hatch development. However, the program has also experienced delays related to the late deliveries of redesigned pressure control valves for the Artemis II European Service Module.

The program has reported development cost growth of 13.6 percent, but officials said the program’s cost estimate includes cost only to a December 2022 launch date, not the April 2023 committed baseline launch date.

Cost and Schedule Status

NASA had planned to conduct the uncrewed demonstration of Artemis I in June 2020, but after a series of delays the agency is currently reevaluating this date. The Orion program is currently planning to be ready for an Artemis I launch as early as November 2020, although this launch date is likely to be delayed, according to NASA. Despite a potential delay to the Artemis I launch, Orion program officials said the committed baseline date for the second mission remains April 2023.

However, the program has experienced significant delays since 2018, placing pressure on that date. For example, late deliveries of redesigned pressure control valves for the Artemis II European Service Module contributed to a 5-month delay to module delivery and reduced program schedule margin, according to program officials.

NASA reported development cost growth of 13.6 percent, or about $918 million, due in large part to European Service Module delays and contractor performance; however, officials said that this cost growth is through a December 2022 Artemis II launch, not the program’s committed baseline of April 2023.

Program officials said they will complete an updated joint cost and schedule confidence level (JCL) before beginning the system assembly integration and test, and launch phase and the JCL will include costs through the program’s committed baseline. NASA policy requires that the program update its JCL estimate because the program exceeded its development acquisition baseline cost by at least 5 percent.

Design

The Orion program decided to accelerate development of the crew module side hatch to reduce risk for Artemis II development. According to program officials, the Artemis I crew module was originally not going to have a functional side hatch, but the program changed course and completed important development and testing of the hatch early that helped to improve the Artemis II side hatch design. These activities reduced Artemis II hatch development risk since, according to program officials, about 80 percent of its design will now be shared with the Artemis I hatch.

Integration and Test

The program completed some significant test events to validate key mission components in the last year. For example, the program successfully tested the Launch Abort System in July 2019, about 5 months earlier than planned, as well as the Crew Module Uprighting System, which rights the crew module prior to an at-sea crew recovery.

After a series of delays, the Orion program was ready to start integrated module thermal vacuum testing in December 2019. The program expects to complete this testing in Spring 2020, after which the program will enter a pre-launch processing period.

The Orion program plans to reduce the 7-month-long pre-launch processing period by 1.5 months. The program plans to use a mass simulator—instead of the Orion spacecraft—to conduct some prelaunch tests that would otherwise be done after integrating Orion with SLS—providing the program with extra time to complete work before delivering Orion for integration and further testing according to officials.

With this shortened process, the program has only 1 week of schedule reserve remaining to the November 2020 launch date, and program officials have said this date will likely be delayed. Our prior work has shown that the integration and test phase often reveals unforeseen challenges that can lead to cost growth and schedule delays.

Program Office Comments

Orion program officials stated that NASA is making excellent progress on delivering the Orion spacecraft that will take the first woman to the moon. In addition to completing the ascent abort test, they said that the Artemis I spacecraft successfully completed thermal vacuum testing and is returning to Kennedy Space Center for final assembly.

Program officials also said that the Artemis II spacecraft assembly is progressing. They noted that while it is true that the Orion life cycle development costs have grown 8 percent since NASA conducted a Key Decision Point review of the Orion program in 2015, the program is planning to a December 2022 Artemis II launch, which is well within the schedule commitment of April 2023.

Orion program officials also provided technical comments on a draft of this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.