First Crew Flight of Orion Likely to Slip Two Years to 2023

First Crew Flight of Orion Likely to Slip Two Years to 2023

NASA revealed the outcome of its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review of the Orion spacecraft program today.  NASA uses that critical milestone as the point at which the agency makes a commitment to the cost and schedule for major programs.  Although officials said they have internal planning schedules to get it done sooner, NASA is willing to commit to the first crew launch of Orion in April 2023, an almost two year slip from the date previously advertised.  As for the cost estimate, the agency committed only to spending $6.77 billion between October 2015 through the first crew launch.  It does not include the billions already spent and whatever the program will cost beyond the first crew launch.

The Orion program began in 2006 as part of the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 initiated under the George W. Bush Administration.  President Obama cancelled Constellation in his FY2011 budget request.  After tense debate with Congress, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act directed NASA to build a new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” (MPCV) to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo program.  NASA chose Orion to serve as the MPCV.  Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor.

NASA already completed the KDP-C step for SLS. It resulted in a one-year slip for when that rocket will be available for its first flight from 2017 to 2018.  That launch, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will carry an uncrewed version of Orion.  The first crewed launch, EM-2, was expected in August 2021 and that remains an internal goal, but NASA will only commit to April 2023 as the baseline plan against which progress will be measured by Congress and others.

NASA launched an uncrewed test version of Orion on the Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) mission last December.  It made two orbits of Earth before splashing down in the Pacific as a test of heat shield material.  NASA did not commit to a launch date for EM-1 today, saying it would be set after the critical design review (another key milestone) is completed for the ground systems associated with the system.  Lightfoot said, however, that at the moment there is no reason to expect that it will change from the current plan for launch in the fall of 2018.

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot and NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier explained the status of the Orion program and the KDP-C results during a media teleconference today (September 16).  NASA is using a 70 percent “Joint Confidence Level” (JCL), meaning there is a 70 percent chance of meeting the promised cost and schedule.   In the past, NASA often used a lower confidence level resulting in many cost overruns and schedule slips and 70 percent is the agency’s new “best practice.”  Last year, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that NASA would not use the 70 percent JCL for SLS, but the agency clearly changed its mind.

The $6.77 billion cost estimate for October 2015 through EM-2 does not include funding spent since 2006 when the program began.  Lightfoot said today the prior costs of Orion are $4.7 billion. The plans after EM-2 are still notional.  Gerstenmaier stressed that the goal is to build a “producible, affordable” system that hopefully can be launched once a year.

One factor in estimating the cost and schedule is how much money the agency expects to get each year to fund the program.  Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier said the KDP-C results are consistent with the President’s budget projections.   Republicans and Democrats in Congress were extremely unhappy with Obama’s decision to cancel Constellation and insisted on initiating SLS and Orion as a replacement.  Key members of Congress argue each year that the Obama Administration is favoring other NASA priorities, such as the commercial crew program, instead of SLS and Orion and usually adds money above the President’s request.

The SLS slip was met with dismay in Congress and the Orion slip is engendering a similar response.   Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, railed against the Obama Administration today:  “Once again, the Obama Administration is choosing to delay deep space exploration priorities….While this administration has consistently cut funding for these programs and delayed their development, Congress has consistently restored funding as part of our commitment to maintaining American leadership in space.”

Congress is still debating NASA’s FY2016 funding bill. The House-passed Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill includes $1.850 billion for SLS, $494 million above the President’s request of $1.356 billion, and $1.096 billion for Orion, the same as the request, but also created a new category of “program integration” for which $53 million was provided.  The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $1.9 billion for SLS and $1.2 billion for Orion.  (For more on House and Senate action on NASA’s budget request, see our NASA Budget fact sheet.)

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