NASA auditors worry the agency’s mission to return astronauts to the moon will be delayed due to space program failures in Europe.
The inspector general’s office reported Thursday NASA may not be launch its EM-1 on schedule due to budget constraints and delays at the European Space Agency (ESA), which is building the Orion capsule for the mission.
“NASA considers Orion to be one of the biggest challenges to meeting the EM-1 flight date of no later than November 2018,” the IG’s office reported. “Delays in the development of the Orion service module, provided by the European Space Agency are the leading factor in the overall Orion delay, as well as technical risks involved with changes in the design of Orion’s heat shield.”
Even though the Europeans are way behind schedule, NASA is in negotiations to have the Europe build future capsules. A tornado recently damaged the factory producing the Space Launch System (SLS), meaning NASA will probably have to delay Orion’s first two missions.
NASA initially created 11 months of “schedule reserve” to prevent delays, but the agency only has one month of reserve time remaining on some programs. The IG’s office warns unresolved technical issues with NASA’s moon program will eat away the last month of “reserve” time.
But the problems may be even more severe. Dr. Robert Zubrin, who helped design plans for NASA’s manned mission to Mars, says NASA lacks any useful plans for Orion and SLS.
“The problem is not that SLS and Orion are late,” Zubrin told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The tragedy is that it doesn’t matter that they are late – because NASA currently lacks any plans to employ them for anything useful.”
Zubrin said international partners usually cause schedule delays, but he also placed blame on how NASA develops new technology.
Instead of defining its missions, NASA spends resources developing technology it doesn’t need, generating waste and delays.
“[P]ut more simply, they have not been spending their money to do things, they have been doing things in order to spend money,” Zubrin said. “If it is to accomplish anything, NASA’s human spaceflight program needs a clear and defensible near term goal – one that is worthy of the costs and risks of human spaceflight.”
Zubrin said President Donald Trump’s plan to return astronauts to lunar orbit doesn’t have a well-defined goal to counteract against NASA’s wasteful tendencies.
NASA’s planned to launch Orion into space around the moon unmanned in late 2018. But then Trump asked NASA to do a manned mission. Preparing a capsule for astronauts means adding additional life support systems, display panels, and abort systems.
SLS, Orion and their support systems is expected to cost $23 billion by the end of 2018.
Trump has not nominated someone to head NASA, but media reports suggest Oklahoma Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot, is the top contender.
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