NASA’s Mars Rocket ‘May Be Difficult To Sustain,’ Says Report

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Some of NASA’s most expensive programs “may be difficult to sustain” in the coming years, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

GAO analyzed 21 major NASA projects, each with a life-cycle cost of more than $250 million, determining that some of the biggest and most expensive projects are nearing problematic stages of development. Two of these NASA programs are over budget and behind schedule, while eight other programs have technical and budget issues, including the two most expensive programs.

“Eight projects are in the phase of development when cost and schedule problems are most likely to occur, including the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System [SLS], NASA’s most expensive human spaceflight programs,” the GAO reported Thursday.

NASA expects the Space Launch System (SLS) to be its first heavy rocket since the Saturn V, which sent astronauts to the moon as part of the Apollo program.

The SLS is designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The Orion space capsules are scheduled to carry astronauts to the moon in 2019 and to Mars in 2033. SLS and Orion are the most costly programs NASA has ever undertaken.

“The SLS program’s schedule is deteriorating and it is at increased risk of exceeding its cost baseline and missing its November 2018 launch readiness date,” the GAO reported. “The program has delayed its internal launch readiness goal and has less cost and schedule reserves available than recommended by NASA center policy to address known and unknown development risks.”

NASA’s inspector general announced in April that the Orion capsule is also facing budget and schedule restraints due to issues at the European Space Agency (ESA), which is building the Orion capsule for the mission. Although the Europeans are way behind schedule, NASA is in negotiations to have Europe build future capsules.

“The [Orion] program has limited cost reserves and no schedule reserves for EM-1, which compromises the program’s ability to address issues as they arise,” the GAO report states. “The late delivery of the European Space Agency-contributed service module (ESM) is one of the main reasons that the program is at risk of missing the planned launch date.”

NASA initially created 11 months of “schedule reserve” in the SLS/Orion project to prevent delays, but the agency only has one month of reserve time remaining on some programs. The report warns that unresolved technical issues with NASA’s moon program will eat away the last month of “reserve” time.

Even this poor performance is significantly better than NASA’s historic problems, according to the GAO report. NASA is doing better largely because it is almost done building the troubled James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The JWST is mostly complete, but the project is currently $7.2 billion over its initial budget and seven years behind its original schedule. The telescope was initially projected to cost $1.6 billion, but the GAO now estimates the final cost of the telescope at $8.8 billion.

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