NASA’s future space program faces critical cost, technology challenges

NASA faces a number of critical budget and technical decisions that could impact the long-term progress of its next generation space exploration technologies.

According to a US Government Accountability Office report out today, there are considerable unknowns as to whether NASA's Constellation Program, which includes the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, and the Ares V Cargo Launch Vehicle, can be designed and built within schedule goals and what these efforts will ultimately cost. This is primarily because NASA is still in the process of defining many performance requirements. Such uncertainties could affect the mass, loads, and weight requirements for the vehicles. NASA is aiming to complete this process in 2008, but it will be challenged to do so given the level of knowledge that still needs to be attained, the GAO said.

Over $7 billion in contracts has already been awarded to the Constellation Program-and nearly $230 billion is estimated to be ultimately spent over the next two decades, the GAO said. Moreover, NASA is under pressure to develop the vehicles quickly, as the Space Shuttle's retirement in 2010 means that there could be at least a 5-year gap in our nation's ability to send humans to space.

According to the GAO the challenges NASA is facing pose risks to the successful outcome of the projects.

For example:

* Both vehicles (the Ares I and the Orion) have a history of weight issues;

* Excessive vibration during launch threatens system design;

* Uncertainty about how flight characteristics will be impacted by a fifth segment added to the Ares I launch vehicle;

* Ares I upper stage essentially requires development of a new engine;

* No industry capability currently exists for producing the kind of heat shields that the Orion will need for protecting the crew exploration vehicle when it reenters Earth's atmosphere; and

* Existing test facilities are insufficient for testing Ares I's new engine, for replicating the engine's vibration and acoustic environment, and for testing the thermal protection system for the Orion vehicle.

On the weight issue the GAO said that weight growth is often not anticipated even though it is among the highest drivers of cost growth for space systems. Weight growth can affect the hardware needed to support a system, and, in the case of launch vehicles, the power or thrust required for the system. As the weight of a particular system increases, the power or thrust required for that system will also increase. This could result in the need to develop additional power or thrust capability to lift the system, leading to additional costs, or to stripping down the vehicle to accommodate current power or thrust capability, the GAO said.

The complexity of software development on a system, often denoted by the number of lines of code on a system, can also be used as an indicator to monitor whether a program will meet cost and schedule goals. In our work on software development best practices, we have reported that the Department of Defense has attributed significant cost and schedule overruns on software-intensive systems to developing and delivering software. Generally, the greater the number of lines of code, the more complicated the system development. Changes to the amount of code needed to be produced can indicate potential cost and schedule problems. Decision makers can monitor this indicator by continually asking for information on the estimated amount of code needed on a system and inquiring about any increases in need and their impact on cost and schedule, the GAO said.

The GAO report also pointed out a couple other issues. For example:

* According to NASA, at this time, existing test facilities are insufficient to adequately test the Ares I and Orion systems. Existing altitude test facilities are insufficient to test the J-2X engine in a relevant environment. To address this issue, NASA is in the process of constructing a new altitude test facility at Stennis Space Center for the J-2X. Also, current facilities are inadequate to replicate the Orion vibration and acoustic environment. Further, Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne-the J-2 X upper stage engine contractor-indicated that existing test stands that could support J-2X testing will be tied up supporting the Space Shuttle program until 2010. NASA has taken steps to mitigate J-2X risks by increasing the amount of component-level testing, procuring additional development hardware and test facilities, and working to make a third test stand available to the contractor earlier than originally planned. funds for testing and other critical activities. But it is not certain that added resources will enable NASA to deliver the Ares I when expected.

* With respect to Orion's thermal protection system, facilities available from the Apollo era for testing large-scale heat shields no longer exist. Therefore, NASA must rely on two facilities that fall short in providing the necessary capability and scheduling to test ablative materials needed for Orion. Additionally, NASA has no scheduled test to demonstrate the thermal protection system needed for lunar missions. NASA is exploring other options, including adding a lunar return flight test and building a new improved test facility. Due to the scheduled first lunar flight, any issues identified during such testing would need to be addressed in the time between the flight test and the first flight.

All these unknowns, as well as others, leave NASA in the position of being unable to provide firm cost estimates for the projects. Meanwhile, tight deadlines are putting additional pressure on both the Ares I and Orion projects. Future requirements changes raise risks that both projects could experience cost and schedule problems, the GAO said.

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