Auditors voice concern about NASA launch vehicle program

By Elizabeth Newell Jochum

December 3, 2007

With only seven months left before NASA moves forward with a program to develop the launch vehicle meant to send Americans back to the moon -- and, eventually, to Mars -- Congress' watchdog agency has expressed concerns about the program.

The Ares I program is a key element of NASA's $230 billion 20-year plan to implement President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. The program will develop the launch vehicle to send the Orion crew exploration vehicle into space. NASA originally planned its first human space flight to take place by 2015, but it is trying to speed up the program in response to the expected space shuttle retirement in 2010.

The Ares program may be in for some delays, however, according to a Government Accountability Office report (GAO-08-51) released Friday. GAO determined that while NASA made sound business decisions early in the program, the agency still has major knowledge gaps about requirements, costs, technology, design and product feasibility.

NASA has until July 2008 to prepare for a preliminary design review, but the report noted that existing gaps "are fairly significant and challenging, given the complexity and interdependencies in the program." GAO has recommended that NASA establish a more sound business plan before moving beyond the preliminary design review, even if that means delaying the program's next stage.

One of the most significant problems, according to the report, is identifying program requirements. Ares I and Orion development must be synchronized, and NASA has identified this condition as one of the top risks of its effort. In addition, at least 14 of the 57 hazards identified by the integrated risk management system tracking the Ares project address the issue of instability.

"When requirements are in flux and development efforts are contingent upon the flow-down of stable requirements, it can create a ripple effect of unknowns and be extremely difficult to establish firm cost and schedule baselines," wrote Christina Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management.

Chaplain also expressed concern that the development of a new engine, the J-2X, for the launch vehicle may cause delays. NASA estimated that the engine will require 29 rework cycles, and the report indicated that the development schedule for the engine may be excessively aggressive. It stated that delays in any stage of the J-2X schedule -- design, development, test and evaluation -- would likely have a ripple effect through the rest of the project.

In addition to potential scheduling delays, NASA may not have enough funding for Ares' umbrella program, Constellation. NASA has been funding Constellation by accumulating funds from fiscal years 2006 and 2007 for work planned over the next three fiscal years. NASA estimates, however, that the total budget will be insufficient to fund all Constellation activities, which could result in work not being completed according to schedules and milestones.

NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale responded to GAO's report, saying the agency was aware of the risks and is working to close knowledge gaps and ensure that it is well-prepared to make long-term decisions and investments. "Substantial work defining the Ares I requirements, cost and schedule estimates has been completed, and this work will continue to mature through the formulation phase of the project," she wrote.

By Elizabeth Newell Jochum

December 3, 2007