by Douglas Messier
NASA needs to strengthen its management oversight of the lunar landing program to minimize delays and cost overruns as the space agency moves beyond the Artemis I flight test scheduled for November 2021, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
GAO’s program review also found that schedule for the maiden flight of the Space Launch System and second Orion spacecraft does not account for delays resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Due in part to COVID-19, manufacturing delays, and remaining risks, there is already risk that this new launch date will not be met. NASA has successfully completed some key test events to evaluate readiness to support the first uncrewed test flight, but complex SLS core stage testing, integration of the SLS and Orion spacecraft, and final integrated testing remain to be completed prior to the Artemis I launch,” the report stated.
GAO’s report and recommendations to NASA are largely focused on improving program beyond the Artemis I mission, which is focused on a lengthy automated flight of the Orion crew vehicle.
Specifically, the report focuses on the upgraded SLS Block 1B and SLS Block 2 boosters, a second mobile launch platform, and Orion’s docking system. The upgraded SLS boosters are designed payload capacity to low Earth orbit to 105 and 130 tons.
GAO recommended that NASA:
- establish cost and schedule baselines for SLS Block 1B, SLS Block 2, Mobile Launcher 2, and Orion Docking System at their preliminary design reviews or as soon as practicable in advance of critical design reviews.
- include cost, schedule, and technical performance updates for SLS Block 1B, SLS Block 2, Mobile Launcher 2, and the Orion Docking System in its quarterly program status reviews in order to maintain oversight of these development projects.
NASA concurred with both recommendations and agreed to implement them.
GAO’s report is just the latest to chronicle problems with NASA’s effort to return American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972. The SLS, Orion and Exploration Ground Systems programs that make up the Artemis program have been falling behind schedule and going over budget for years.
A summary of the report follows.
NASA Human Space Exploration:
Significant Investments in Future Capabilities
Require Strengthened Management Oversight
Government Accountability Office
Why GAO Did This Study
NASA is pursuing an aggressive goal to return American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by the end of 2024. The success of NASA’s plans hinges, in part, on two upcoming test flights. An uncrewed test flight and subsequent crewed test flight are intended to demonstrate the capability of a new launch vehicle, crew capsule, and ground systems.
The House Committee on Appropriations included a provision in its 2017 report for GAO to continue to review NASA’s human space exploration programs. This is the latest in a series of GAO reports addressing this topic. This report assesses (1) the progress the programs are making towards the first test flight, known as Artemis I, with respect to schedule and cost, and (2) the extent to which NASA’s human space exploration programs are positioned to support the planned Artemis flight schedule beyond Artemis I.
To do this work, GAO examined program cost and schedule reports, test plans, and contracts, and interviewed officials. GAO also assessed the extent to which the COVID-19 state of emergency has affected schedules for these programs.
What GAO Found
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) again delayed the planned launch date for Artemis I, the first uncrewed test flight involving three closely related human spaceflight programs—the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System (SLS), and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS). Together, these programs aim to continue human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. The most recent delay, to November 2021, resulted in part from manufacturing challenges and represents a 36-month slip since NASA established a schedule to measure performance in 2014. This new launch date does not account for the effects of COVID-19. According to NASA officials, COVID-19 delays and schedule risks will place pressure on NASA’s ability to achieve this launch date.
Development cost estimates for key programs also increased. The cost of the SLS program increased by 42.5 percent and the EGS program by 32.3 percent since 2014, for a combined increase of over $3 billion, bringing the total to $11.5 billion. NASA does not plan to complete revised estimates for Orion, which are tied to the second, crewed test flight (Artemis II) before spring 2021.
NASA awarded billions of dollars in development and production contracts to support flights beyond Artemis I, but the flight schedule has changed frequently due to a lack of clear requirements and time frames for planned capability upgrades. Limited NASA oversight also places efforts to plan and execute future flights at risk of adverse outcomes, such as increased costs or delays. For example, NASA is committed to establishing cost and schedule performance baselines for these efforts, but it plans to do so too late in the acquisition process to be useful as an oversight tool.
In addition, senior leaders do not receive consistent and comprehensive information at quarterly briefings on future efforts, such as a program to begin developing a more powerful upper stage for SLS. This is because current updates provided to NASA management focus primarily on the more short-term Artemis I and II flights. This approach places billions of dollars at risk of insufficient NASA oversight.
What GAO Recommends
GAO is making two recommendations to NASA to establish baselines ahead of a key design review and improve internal reporting about capability upgrades for human space exploration programs beyond Artemis I. NASA concurred with the recommendations made in this report.
We recommend that the NASA Administrator ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate establish cost and schedule baselines for SLS Block 1B, SLS Block 2, Mobile Launcher 2, and Orion Docking System at their preliminary design reviews or as soon as practicable in advance of critical design reviews. (Recommendation 1)
We recommend that the NASA Administrator ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate directs the Exploration Systems Development organization to include cost, schedule, and technical performance updates for SLS Block 1B, SLS Block 2, Mobile Launcher 2, and the Orion Docking System in its quarterly program status reviews in order to maintain oversight of these development projects. (Recommendation 2)