WASHINGTON — While managers of NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule program have made the best of a difficult budget environment, their coping strategy ultimately could cause delays and cost increases, an internal agency audit concluded.

In a report released Aug. 15, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General said there is a price to be paid for developing major systems of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle piecemeal rather than simultaneously.

“We believe it vital that Congress and the public recognize that incremental spacecraft development is not an optimal way to sustain a human space program,” NASA Inspector General Paul Martin wrote in the report. “[D]elaying critical development tasks in complex spaceflight development programs increases the risk of cost and schedule problems and causes development of critical technologies to be deferred to later program phases when integration may be more difficult or the costs of material and labor greater.”

Orion is the crew-carrying piece of NASA’s deep-space transportation system, the first such system the agency has set about building since the Apollo era. Orion’s intended carrier rocket is the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), an initial variant of which is slated to loft two Orion missions to lunar space in 2017 and 2021. Only the latter mission would be crewed. 

Orion and SLS draw heavily on hardware designs for the Moon-bound Constellation program that the White House canceled in 2010. Congress subsequently ordered NASA to build the vehicles using any space shuttle and Constellation contracts that could practically be adapted for the work. 

NASA obliged, but with shrinking budgets and a continuing obligation to other programs, such as sending crew and cargo to the international space station, the agency has had to slow-roll some of the Orion and SLS work.

The new report warned that this approach has already delayed tests on critical Orion subsystems and may well delay more. The agency’s watchdog pointed to two particular delays to make its point. 

First, the report said Orion’s maiden spaceflight, a stress test for the craft’s heat shields, was delayed from 2013 to September 2014. In that test, Orion will be placed into orbit by a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket and then sent on a steep re-entry trajectory to simulate the stresses the craft would experience on a direct return from lunar orbit. 

Second, the report noted that a test of Orion’s launch abort system, which would propel astronauts to safety if something goes wrong during the ascent to space, has been delayed by four years due to budget pressure.  The test was originally scheduled for 2015.

The high-altitude test of the abort system, which ATK Aerospace of Magna, Utah, is providing as a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin, will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on a converted Peacekeeper missile stage prepared by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Va.

Besides these two tests, “NASA has delayed development of life support systems and some avionics due to budget constraints,” the report said.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver got its $6.1 billion Orion prime contract in 2006 and had spent $5.1 billion as of Sept. 30 2012, NASA spokeswoman Rachel Kraft said. The contract runs through September 2014, and NASA and Lockheed Martin are negotiating an extension that would cover work for the capsule’s first flights to lunar space.

Lockheed received a stopgap contract to begin that work back in February. Negotiations on a final contract extension are expected to wrap up sometime this year, Kraft said. She declined to provide the value of the stopgap contract. 

The White House requested about $1 billion for Orion in 2014, an amount that House appropriators matched in a spending bill now awaiting a floor vote. Senate appropriators, who ignored the effect of across-the-board sequestration cuts that are still in effect, provided $1.2 billion for Orion. 

Meanwhile, although Martin’s report focused on Orion, it also reiterated an oft-repeated point: The money NASA has said it will spend on SLS, Orion and associated ground systems is not enough to stage a mission to any extraterrestrial surface. 

“Given the time and money necessary to develop landers and associated systems, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct any surface exploration missions until the late 2020s at the earliest,” the report says. “NASA astronauts will be limited to orbital missions using” Orion.

One such mission, proposed by the White House, is the Asteroid Redirect Mission, in which NASA would send a robotic craft to capture a small asteroid and deliver it to lunar orbit. Astronauts aboard Orion would then visit the asteroid to collect samples while testing the spacecraft’s performance in an environment far from the Earth.

The mission has not generated much enthusiasm in Congress. Legislation drafted in the House would bar NASA from spending any money on the mission, while a companion bill in the Senate is silent on the matter. 


Orion Abort Test Delayed Until After Maiden SLS Flight

NASA: Orion and Heavy Lifter Need Funding Stability

$17.5B NASA Spending Bill Favors Planetary Probes over Crew Taxis

Bolden, Lawmakers Lock Horns over Commercial Crew, Orion

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...