NASA's manned space plans take another body blow

GAO says NASA not making business case for moving forward with Constellation program

The folks at the Government Accountability Office have not been all that kind to NASA in recent years and today they issued another harsh report on the future of the manned space flight program. 

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case--including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time--needed to justify moving the Constellation program, which includes the two main spaceflight components, the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, forward into the implementation phase, the GAO stated. 

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The GAO cites significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the weight of the Orion vehicle that must be overcome in order to meet safety and performance requirements. 

The GAO went on to say  poorly phased funding that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. The overall approach has limited NASA's ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of workforce and developmental activities, the GAO stated. 

NASA estimates that Ares I and Orion represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the Constellation program through 2020. While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts, at this point NASA does not know how much Ares I and Orion will ultimately cost, and will not know until technical and design challenges have been addressed, the GAO concluded. 

Regardless of NASA's final plans for moving forward, the agency faces daunting challenges developing human rated spacecraft for use after the Space Shuttle is retired, and it is important that the agency lay out an acquisition strategy grounded in knowledge-based principles that is executable with acceptable levels of risk within the program's available budget, the GAO stated. 

It is the budget that has the attention of government planers at the moment.  

That's because the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plan Committee said in its preliminary report on the future of NASA said: '[NASA] is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations," the report stated. 

The committee's report was bleak too but ultimately how its results are interpreted will determine the future of any manned space flights. 

The report offered a number of interesting findings and space exploration options, chief among them was the fact that NASA should basically get out of the low orbit business and focus on deeper space research. 

For its part, in responding to the GAO report, NASA acknowledged that, while substantial work has been completed, the Constellation program faces knowledge gaps concerning requirements, technologies, funding, schedule, and other resources. NASA stated that it is working to close these gaps before committing to significant, long-term investments in the Constellation program. 

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