NASA IG Worries About Programmatic Risk to Orion Due To Funding Constraints

NASA IG Worries About Programmatic Risk to Orion Due To Funding Constraints

On the same day that NASA and the U.S. Navy tested operations for recovering the Orion spacecraft from an ocean landing, NASA’s Inspector General (IG) issued a report warning that NASA’s incremental development of Orion adds program risk.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) report did not criticize NASA program managers, conceding that they are doing the best they can under current funding constraints.  Instead it reiterated warnings that incremental funding increases program risk and urged NASA program managers to be “as transparent as possible when discussing the issues” facing the program.  Funding constraints that force program managers to “adopt a less-than-optimal incremental development approach in which elements necessary to complete the most immediate steps are given priority” and other elements are pushed out into the future “increases risks.”

Referring to Orion as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), the generic name used in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, the report states that deadlines are already being stretched out:  “Specifically, test dates have slipped 4 years on the Ascent Abort-2 test and 9 months on the Exploration Flight Test-1.”  Development of life support systems also has been delayed.    Those are a portent of what is in store for NASA’s entire human exploration program in the current budget situation, the OIG asserts, and “it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct any surface exploration missions until the late 2020s at the earliest.”

Meanwhile, NASA and the Navy tested recovery techniques for lifting an Orion capsule out of the ocean onto a Navy ship today using a mockup of the capsule. 

 Mockup of Orion capsule next to U.S.S. Arlington, August 15, 2013.   Photo credit:  NASA

The Navy will recover a test version of the Orion spacecraft from the ocean next year at the conclusion of the Engineering Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), designed to test reentry characteristics.   The spacecraft will make two orbits of the Earth, reaching an altitude of 3,600 miles, which NASA describes as being further from the planet than any mission since Apollo 17, the final lunar Apollo mission in 1972.  The Navy has not recovered a NASA human exploration spacecraft from the ocean since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.  After decades of using the space shuttle, which landed on a runway, NASA is returning to ocean landings for the new Orion capsule.  Today’s Orion Stationary Recovery Test took place at Naval Station Norfolk, VA.  The Navy posted a video of some of the operations.

Orion is being designed to travel beyond low Earth orbit, eventually to Mars, although its precise intermediate destinations are still the subject of debate.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the EFT-1 mission would take the Orion test vehicle to the distance of the Moon and back.  It will only reach an altitude of 3,600 miles.  That is15 times further from Earth than the International Space Station, but far shy of the Moon (which is 240,000 miles away).


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