NASA IG: Journey to Mars Cost $26 Billion Through FY2016, Future Costs Unclear

NASA IG: Journey to Mars Cost $26 Billion Through FY2016, Future Costs Unclear

NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports that NASA spent $26 billion from FY2006-2016 on programs to send humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) — what was called the Journey to Mars during the Obama Administration.  In an April 13 report, the OIG expressed reservations about future cost estimates and technical challenges facing the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew spacecraft, and associated Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) that are “likely to delay their launch.”

It can be difficult to follow how much NASA is spending on its program to send humans beyond LEO. Humans have not traveled beyond LEO, where the International Space Station is located, since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 — the last time astronauts set foot on the lunar surface.

The current effort, sometimes called “deep space human exploration,” began in FY2006 as the Constellation program under President George W. Bush.  His goal was returning humans to the lunar surface by 2020.  That program involved building the Ares I and Ares V rockets, the Orion crew spacecraft, and the Altair lunar lander.  The Obama Administration cancelled Constellation and replaced it with the Journey to Mars (J2M) to put humans in orbit around Mars in the 2030s without any missions to the lunar surface.  Ares I and Ares V were cancelled and the SLS program began in their stead.  Altair never got started.  The Orion crew spacecraft survived the transition from Constellation to J2M.  J2M included the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in cis-lunar space as a steppingstone to Mars.  The Trump Administration has proposed terminating ARM.

NASA now talks about building a Deep Space Gateway in cis-lunar space and a Deep Space Transport to take astronauts from there to orbit Mars in the 2030s.  Landing people on the Moon or Mars are not in NASA’s current plan, although officials express optimism that international or commercial partners might send astronauts to the lunar surface via its Deep Space Gateway, and the long-term goal remains eventually landing people on Mars.

Cost estimates vary depending on how many years and which of those programs to reach what destination are included. The OIG report is focused on J2M as it existed at the end of  the Obama Administration, but includes money spent on Orion during the Bush Administration since it continues.

NASA’s internal procedures require the agency to commit to a cost estimate and launch schedule for each of its flight programs at their
Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) milestones.  Congress uses those estimates as the baseline against which cost overruns and schedule delays are measured.  NASA is required to take certain steps if those overruns or delays exceed specified thresholds.

NASA made separate KDP-C estimates for SLS, Orion and GSDO, but only through initial launches.  The commitments for SLS and GSDO are through the first launch, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), in late 2018.  For Orion, it is through the first launch with a crew, EM-2. The official commitment is for EM-2 to take place in 2023, although NASA hopes to accelerate it to 2021.

In August 2014, NASA announced its cost estimate for SLS through EM-1, including formulation and development, as $9.695 billion.  In September 2015, it released its KDP-C estimate for Orion, $6.77 billion, but that covered only FY2015 through EM-2, not the money spent from FY2006-FY2014. The estimate for GSDO was $2.8 billion through EM-1.

NASA announced in February that it is examining the pros and cons of launching a crew on EM-1 instead of waiting until EM-2, but no decision has been reached yet.  The concept was not addressed in the OIG report.

A major point of this OIG report, in fact, is that NASA’s plans beyond EM-1 are unclear.  They were unclear before the change in administrations and are less clear now with the Trump Administration in office and, for example, proposing the termination of ARM.   “In light of the enormous costs and challenges and the critical decisions that will need to be made in the next several years,” the OIG says it prepared the report to provide “policy makers with a better sense of the significant technical, financial and political challenges” that lie ahead.

The OIG calculates a total of $26 billion spent on the humans-beyond-LEO program through FY2016 as follows:

  • $15.6 billion from FY2012-FY2016 for SLS, Orion, GSDO and Exploration Systems Development integration activities for EM-1 and EM-2;
  • $5.7 billion from FY2006-FY2011 on Orion (initiated as part of the Bush Administration’s Constellation program);
  • $1.8 billion in FY2011 to transition from Constellation to J2M; and
  • $2.8 billion from FY2012-2016 on technology development related to human and robotic spaceflight associated with the program.

For SLS, Orion and GSDO alone, the OIG estimates that NASA will spend $23 billion through the end of FY2018.  It points out that its own earlier studies and those from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) express concerns about NASA’s ability to meet the current schedule of EM-1 no later than November 2018 and EM-2 as early as 2021.

In particular, it notes that NASA has not developed an integrated cost estimate for EM-2.  Further, the reserves included in the estimate for EM-1 are “much lower than the 10 to 30 percent” recommended by Marshall Space Flight Center, where SLS is managed. That means less flexibility in dealing with unanticipated problems.  Added to budget uncertainties resulting from congressional delays in enacting annual appropriations bills, which hamper NASA’s ability to make “informed and timely” funding allocation decisions, the OIG concludes that delays are “likely.”

The OIG made six recommendations, including that NASA develop an integrated SLS/Orion/GSDO schedule for EM-2 and “establish more rigorous cost and schedule estimates for SLS and associated GSDO infrastructure for EM-2.”   NASA was provided with a draft of the report and concurred or partially concurred with all the recommendations and proposed corrective actions.  OIG was satisfied with NASA’s response except for the recommendation about establishing more rigorous cost and schedule estimates for SLS and GSDO for EM-2.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier’s response to the OIG report is published therein (Appendix I).  He stated that he did not see what decisions would be informed by providing a cost estimate for a specific flight, that NASA was developing a program and not a series of missions, and the phasing of funds from congressional appropriations is the driver in cost estimate variability.

The OIG disagreed.  “In our judgment, a detailed EM-2 cost estimate would allow Agency officials and external stakeholders to better understand the mission’s progress and the full costs involved.  Therefore, this recommendation is unresolved pending further discussions with Agency officials.”

NASA’s Inspector General (IG), like those in most federal agencies, is appointed by the President pursuant to the Inspectors General Act of 1978.  Paul Martin has been the NASA IG since 2009.  Previously he was the Deputy IG at the Department of Justice.

The 71-page report is a treasure trove of facts, figures and explanations of NASA’s humans-beyond-LEO effort and challenges going forward.

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