WASHINGTON — Members of the House Science Committee sought assurances from NASA Sept. 28 that the agency is taking sufficient steps to keep the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle from busting its budget and schedule as so many other large agency programs have in recent years.

“NASA has to move ahead with Orion deliberately, but also cautiously, and Congress has to keep a keen and constant eye on the project,” House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said during the Sept. 28 hearing. “Neither the agency nor the nation can afford another space station — a project that, for all its technical magnificence, has seen its costs balloon while its capabilities shrank to near the vanishing point.”

Boehlert said he was glad to see that NASA had modified its approach on the Orion contract in response to the criticism of that approach in a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released July 17.

The 22-page report, actually a memo with the subject line “NASA: Long-Term Commitment to and Investment in Space Exploration Program Requires More Knowledge,” criticized the agency for locking itself into a long-term contract to design, develop and manufacture Orion before establishing detailed design requirements and firm cost estimates. The report said that by prematurely committing to a long-term development effort, NASA’s acquisition strategy puts the program at risk of serious cost overruns.

“[W]e found that NASA’s acquisition strategy for the CEV was not based upon obtaining an adequate level of knowledge when making key resources decisions, placing the program at risk for cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls,” Allen Li, the GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, said during the hearing. “These risks were evident in NASA’s plan to commit to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case for the project that includes well-defined requirements, mature technology, a preliminary design, and firm cost estimates.”

Boehlert convened the hearing specifically to hear how NASA was responding to the GAO’s concerns. The hearing likely was Boehlert’s last dealing with NASA. The 70-year-old congressman is retiring at the end of the legislative session.

Scott Horowitz, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, said during the hearing he disagreed with the GAO’s findings. However, Horowitz said NASA made some of the changes recommended by the GAO prior to awarding the Orion prime contract Sept. 1 to Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

“Based on our discussions [with the GAO] we have made some modifications to our contract with Lockheed Martin, the most notable being of options which preserve NASA capabilities in case of any unforeseen trouble,” he said. The contract is structured around an initial five-year design, development, test and evaluation performance period worth $3.9 billion. Options for additional development work, sustaining engineering and vehicle production could make the contract worth approximately $8.1 billion through 2019.

Li said breaking the Orion prime contract into three phases — making production and engineering sustainment separate options — was “a step in the right direction” but only partially addressed the GAO’s concerns. “NASA still has no assurance that the project will have a sound business case in place at preliminary design review, therefore commitment to efforts beyond that point even when limited to design and development activities is a risk approach,” Li said.

Horowitz said NASA has a sound understanding of what it is getting into with Orion, having spent $140 million on Orion formulation activities prior to awarding the prime contract.

“The Constellation program, our NASA Smart Buyer Team, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman-Boeing team all completed initial designs based on our requirements,” Horowitz said. “If you were to place a model of each of these designs on the table, except for the shape of the solar arrays, you couldn’t tell the difference. The largest change we’ve made in a year to the vehicle is we shrunk it from 5.5 meters to 5 meters … we know what we need to do. It’s time to execute.”

Lockheed Martin proposed building distinctive round solar arrays for Orion.

“The most important factor that will reduce the total cost for production and operations of Orion is its simplicity,” Horowitz said. “The Ares 1 launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft are far simpler designs than the space shuttle and thus we will need fewer engineers to design, develop, test and operate. There are no exotic technologies or revolutionary designs required to accomplish our mission.”

Li said now that the Orion prime contract has been awarded, it is critical for NASA to follow sound program management practices and for Congress to maintain vigorous oversight over not just Orion but the other elements of Constellation still to be awarded.

“Orion is only one piece of the pie,” Li said.

Among the tools Congress has at its disposal, Li said, are Nunn-McCurdy-type cost controls included in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act requiring congressional action when NASA reports project cost overruns exceeding set levels.

Horowitz said NASA would do its part keeping Orion on budget and on schedule while maintaining an open line of communication with Congress about the project’s progress.

“What can we do to avoid cost overruns?” Horowitz asked. “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t say this to my staff. This is all about performance, cost and schedule.”

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, defended NASA’s acquisition strategy. He also said he was concerned that some of the GAO’s recommendations would delay development of the CEV, putting at risk the 2014 deadline Congress set last year for fielding the new system.

“I believe NASA has a more advanced state of knowledge than the agency has had for many of their earlier procurements,” Calvert said. “In addition, the NASA acquisition strategy for the Vision [for Space Exploration] is more flexible and has built in incentives, options and provisions for termination if necessary. The aim is to improve contractor performance.”

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, said he wanted to see Orion succeed, but highlighted the GAO’s finding that NASA’s exploration projects face multi-billion dollar funding shortfalls between 2014 and 2020. “We may be seeing another example of lofty goals being set without those proposing them identifying where the resources needed to achieve those goals will be coming from,” Gordon said. “That’s simply not smart planning or responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”