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NASA Audit Warns More Delays, Cost Growth are Possible for Orion

NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Ricky Arnold step into the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle hatch during a series of spacesuit check tests conducted June 13 at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credit: NASA photo by Bill Stafford

WASHINGTON — While managers of NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule program have made the best of a difficult budget environment, their coping strategy ultimately could cause delays and cost increases, an internal agency audit concluded.

In a report released Aug. 15, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General said there is a price to be paid for developing major systems of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle piecemeal rather than simultaneously.

“We believe it vital that Congress and the public recognize that incremental spacecraft development is not an optimal way to sustain a human space program,” NASA Inspector General Paul Martin wrote in the report. “[D]elaying critical development tasks in complex spaceflight development programs increases the risk of cost and schedule problems and causes development of critical technologies to be deferred to later program phases when integration may be more difficult or the costs of material and labor greater.”

Orion is the crew-carrying piece of NASA’s deep-space transportation system, the first such system the agency has set about building since the Apollo era. Orion’s intended carrier rocket is the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), an initial variant of which is slated to loft two Orion missions to lunar space in 2017 and 2021. Only the latter mission would be crewed. 

Orion and SLS draw heavily on hardware designs for the Moon-bound Constellation program that the White House canceled in 2010. Congress subsequently ordered NASA to build the vehicles using any space shuttle and Constellation contracts that could practically be adapted for the work. 

NASA obliged, but with shrinking budgets and a continuing obligation to other programs, such as sending crew and cargo to the international space station, the agency has had to slow-roll some of the Orion and SLS work.

The new report warned that this approach has already delayed tests on critical Orion subsystems and may well delay more. The agency’s watchdog pointed to two particular delays to make its point. 

First, the report said Orion’s maiden spaceflight, a stress test for the craft’s heat shields, was delayed from 2013 to September 2014. In that test, Orion will be placed into orbit by a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket and then sent on a steep re-entry trajectory to simulate the stresses the craft would experience on a direct return from lunar orbit. 

Second, the report noted that a test of Orion’s launch abort system, which would propel astronauts to safety if something goes wrong during the ascent to space, has been delayed by four years due to budget pressure.  The test was originally scheduled for 2015.

The high-altitude test of the abort system, which ATK Aerospace of Magna, Utah, is providing as a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin, will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on a converted Peacekeeper missile stage prepared by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Va.

Besides these two tests, “NASA has delayed development of life support systems and some avionics due to budget constraints,” the report said.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver got its $6.1 billion Orion prime contract in 2006 and had spent $5.1 billion as of Sept. 30 2012, NASA spokeswoman Rachel Kraft said. The contract runs through September 2014, and NASA and Lockheed Martin are negotiating an extension that would cover work for the capsule’s first flights to lunar space.

Lockheed received a stopgap contract to begin that work back in February. Negotiations on a final contract extension are expected to wrap up sometime this year, Kraft said. She declined to provide the value of the stopgap contract. 

The White House requested about $1 billion for Orion in 2014, an amount that House appropriators matched in a spending bill now awaiting a floor vote. Senate appropriators, who ignored the effect of across-the-board sequestration cuts that are still in effect, provided $1.2 billion for Orion. 

Meanwhile, although Martin’s report focused on Orion, it also reiterated an oft-repeated point: The money NASA has said it will spend on SLS, Orion and associated ground systems is not enough to stage a mission to any extraterrestrial surface. 

“Given the time and money necessary to develop landers and associated systems, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct any surface exploration missions until the late 2020s at the earliest,” the report says. “NASA astronauts will be limited to orbital missions using” Orion.

One such mission, proposed by the White House, is the Asteroid Redirect Mission, in which NASA would send a robotic craft to capture a small asteroid and deliver it to lunar orbit. Astronauts aboard Orion would then visit the asteroid to collect samples while testing the spacecraft’s performance in an environment far from the Earth.

The mission has not generated much enthusiasm in Congress. Legislation drafted in the House would bar NASA from spending any money on the mission, while a companion bill in the Senate is silent on the matter. 



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Article Comments

This whole program is fatally flawed by the Congressional requirement to use assets that are dated and inappropriate for the future of space exploration. Giant rockets and single programs designed to cover all human spaceflight BEO are heroic attempts to repeat the Apollo program with all the flaws inherent in that program and the Shuttle program retained. These are technically infeasible because of the necessity to push so much technology in parallel where funding is and always will be inadequate under current NASA requirements and systems. NASA should set standards and do the research necessary to support a modular space system where units from various sources can be combined for the wide variety of missions we need in the future. This is somewhat modeled in the ISS but needs further refinement to reduce development costs and free up money for a sustainable presence in space in LEO and throughout the Solar system where appropriate. Missions assembled and fueled on orbit can have much more scientifically robust hardware when they do not have to launch with all the consumables and other mission elements. For example, booms and panels that do not have to survive launch and then deploy in route will be much more reliable and far less costly while reducing risk to mission objectives. This is the simplest of logic, but it seems to have escaped the various participants in this process, whose concerns seem to be more around who gets what contracts in which district than around providing this country with a secure, effective and robust space program.

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