When NASA announced the completion of the Space Launch System's critical design review Oct. 22, it also released an updated illustration of the rocket, with the core stage now orange instead of white. NASA said in a press release that orange is "the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements," as was the case with the shuttle's external tank. Not explained in the release, those, are the curved gray and orange stripes on the solid rocket boosters. Some think they are intended to evoke memories of the shuttle itself or the logo of original shuttle contractor Rockwell International — or, perhaps, computer game company Atari. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Software needed for future launches of NASA’s Space Launch System at the Kennedy Space Center is behind schedule and over budget, in part because of a “cultural legacy” problem at the agency, a report concluded March 28.

The report, by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), found that work on the Spaceport Command and Control System (SCCS), software that will be used to handle ground operations for SLS/Orion launches, was more than 75 percent over budget and more than a year behind schedule.

Work on the SCCS dates back to 2006, when NASA started development of software under the Constellation program that would connect separate computer systems needed to support ground operations for launches. That work transitioned into the current SCCS program after NASA cancelled the Constellation program and replaced it with the SLS and Orion.

Development of that software system, though, has suffered cost overruns and schedule delays. In 2012, NASA estimated the total cost to develop and maintain SCCS from 2012 through 2025 to be $117.3 million. In the agency’s latest budget request, that total, over the same period, grew to $207.4 million, an increase of 77 percent. In 2014, NASA expected to have the fully operational version of SCCS completed in July 2016. That date has since slipped to September 2017.

NASA has also reduced or eliminated some capabilities originally planned in the software to deal with cost and schedule problems. One example cited in the OIG report is the deferral of data protection capabilities in the software designed to restrict access to astronaut health data.

The OIG report suggests that NASA underestimated the difficulty in developing the SCCS, thinking it would be relatively straightforward to “glue” together a mix of commercially available software packages.

“Generally, the need to glue together multiple complex software packages can increase the cost and lengthen the schedule of a software development effort,” the report stated. That approach, it argued, “tried to take the best features from multiple software products and glue them together by writing code in-house – akin to taking automobile parts not designed to work together from several different brands and attempting to assemble a new car.”

The report also concluded that NASA didn’t sufficiently consider the alternative of a single, integrated commercial product. Advances in recent years in such software, it concluded, “may provide much of the functionality needed to launch the SLS and Orion with relatively little modification.” The OIG noted that both Orbital ATK and SpaceX make use of commercial software for operating their commercial cargo missions to the International Space Station.

NASA officials told the OIG that it would be too late now to switch course to a single commercial solution without delaying the first SLS launch, now planned for November 2018. However, the OIG argued that a delay in the second SLS mission, which may slip from 2021 to 2023, could give NASA additional time to evaluate its software strategy.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a response to the report that NASA will undertake an independent evaluation of the SCCS once the software needed to carry out the first SLS mission is completed, to examine potential changes for later missions. “NASA does not believe that it makes sense to re-open the architecture strategy for Exploration Mission (EM)-1,” he wrote.

The OIG concluded that NASA’s reluctance to make major changes to the SCCS program “reflects a cultural legacy at NASA of over-optimism and over-promising what the Agency can achieve in a specific timeframe.”

“While optimism and a can-do attitude is essential to producing the types of unique space flight projects NASA undertakes,” the report states, “it can also lead managers to underestimate the amount of time and money needed to overcome significant technical challenges.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...