NASA Agrees With GAO — First SLS/Orion Mission Will Slip to 2019

NASA Agrees With GAO — First SLS/Orion Mission Will Slip to 2019

In response to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released today, the head of NASA’s human exploration program agreed with GAO’s conclusion that Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule, will slip from late 2018 into 2019.  GAO’s report warned that a delay was likely.  NASA’s written response, published as an appendix, agrees and states that the agency is in the process of setting “a new target in 2019.”

The GAO audit of SLS, Orion and associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), prepared for the chairs of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that fund NASA, was conducted from July 2016 to April 2017.  GAO found that although the programs were making progress, “schedule pressure is escalating as technical challenges continue to cause schedule delays” while each has little cost or schedule reserve remaining.  It called the existing launch readiness date of November 2018 “precarious.”

The GAO report aligns with a recent report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General that also expressed concern about cost and schedule delays.

GAO made two recommendations to NASA: as part of the FY2018 budget process, confirm whether the existing EM-1 schedule is achievable and, if not, propose a new schedule.

GAO provides drafts of its reports to whatever agency is being audited and allows the agency to respond in writing, with the response published as part of the report.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, replied to this report on April 12, 2017. 

Gerstenmaier said NASA agrees “that maintaining a November 2018 launch readiness date is not in the best interest of the program, and we are in the process of establishing a new target date in 2019.” 

He added that some of the concerns raised by GAO “are no longer concerns, and new ones have appeared. Caution should be used in referencing the report on the specific technical issues, but the overall conclusions are valid.”

He concurred with GAO’s two recommendations and said that NASA would complete its analysis of a new launch readiness date by September 30, 2017.  He noted that NASA is assessing the EM-1 schedule with regard to the potential for putting crew on EM-1 (rather than waiting for EM-2 as has been planned until now); impacts of recent tornado damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, LA where the SLS core stage is being developed; and the FY2018 budget process.

Congress directed NASA to develop SLS and a “mutli-purpose crew vehicle” (MPCV) in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  

President Obama had just cancelled the George W. Bush administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and someday go to Mars.  Obama proposed investing in “game-changing” propulsion technologies for 5 years before deciding on what new launch vehicle to build for future human exploration.  Under Bush, NASA had been developing the Ares I and Ares V rockets and the Orion crew spacecraft.  Obama’s focus was on extending the International Space Station (ISS) from 2015 to 2020, but he adopted Bush’s decision to terminate the space shuttle as soon as ISS construction was completed and therefore called for creating public-private partnerships to develop commercial systems to take crews back and forth.  The “commercial crew” idea built on the “commercial cargo” program initiated in the Bush Administration that saw development of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon and Orbital ATK Antares/Cygnus systems in use today.  (SpaceX and Boeing are currently working on commercial crew systems, but those schedules also have been delayed.)

Congress, however, had passed two laws, the 2005 and 2008 NASA authorization acts, on a bipartisan basis endorsing the Constellation program.  Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike were furious at Obama’s decision to cancel Constellation with no replacement program that would, for example, absorb workers laid off from the space shuttle.   Obama quickly decided to give a speech a Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 where he announced a new human spaceflight destination — an asteroid by 2025 — as a steppingstone to Mars, but also nixed plans to send Americans back to the lunar surface.  The asteroid mission evolved into the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM),
with activities in lunar orbit, but no landings on the surface.  Obama set a goal of putting astronauts in orbit around Mars in the 2030s, but with regard to humans landing on Mars, said only that he expected it within his lifetime.

After months of fractious debate between the White House and Congress, agreement was reached on the 2010 NASA authorization act.  It took a middle ground, allowing Obama to proceed with the commercial crew initiative for ISS, but also directing NASA to build SLS and an MPCV for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit. 

Hence began the SLS program, with the expected first launch, EM-1, with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft in 2017.  The first launch with a crew, EM-2, was expected in August 2021.

By 2015, those dates had slipped to late 2018 for EM-1 and April 2023 for EM-2.  SLS supporters in Congress, including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, pushed to keep the EM-2 launch date in 2021.  SLS is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.  Congress added money to the amounts requested by the Obama Administration for the past several years to keep SLS on schedule.  NASA officials continually assert that although 2023 is the EM-2 date to which they are officially committed, August 2021 is an “internal” planning date.

Today’s GAO report does not address the EM-2 schedule, but if EM-1 slips to 2019, it seems unlikely that EM-2 could take place as early as 2021.  Among other things, EM-2 will use a different upper stage that is taller than the one for EM-1 and thus requires changes to ground facilities.  Gerstenmaier said in February that it will take 33 months to make those changes.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration wants to terminate ARM, but asked NASA to determine the feasibility of putting a crew on EM-1 instead of waiting for EM-2 as has been planned all along.  Acting NASA Chief Scientist Gale Allen said last week that the EM-1 crew feasibility study is completed and the agency is awaiting a “go forward plan.”

In short, the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program continues to be uncertain, despite President Trump’s assertion last week that he wants Americans to get to Mars sooner than currently planned.


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