The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is not off base in warning that NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle procurement plan risks delivering a product that is late, over budget and short on capability. Unfortunately, the same can be said of almost any challenging space program, and there is no clear-cut alternative to NASA’s strategy given the schedule and budget constraints the agency faces.
The GAO outlined its concerns in a July 17 report dubbed “NASA: Long Term Commitment to and Investment in Space Exploration Program Requires More Knowledge.” The report recommends that NASA not award the prime contract for the space shuttle replacement until after preliminary design review, the milestone that nails down a program’s requirements, technical specifications and likely costs. As it is, NASA plans to award the crew capsule prime contract by early September and put the winning bidder on track for a preliminary design review 18 months later.
In an ideal world, NASA might benefit from carrying two competitors through preliminary design review and then selecting the winner. But according to NASA’s dissenting response to the GAO’s report, doing so would cost another $1 billion, money the agency clearly does not have.
Oddly, the GAO countered that NASA need not fund competitive efforts through the design review; that one would be sufficient just so long as the agency does not commit to a multi year development program until then. That overlooks the fact that once a prime contractor is selected, the competitive phase of the program is over: the losing bidder cannot be expected to keep its team together and stand ready to take over if the winning team falters.
In any event, awarding the prime contract is not a commitment akin to crossing the Rubicon. The U.S. government can always terminate contracts or include milestones at which it can opt out without incurring draconian penalties.
That said, the perils the GAO says await NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle program are real; it is always advisable to have as much information in hand as possible before awarding a prime contract on any complex system. But unless the United States is prepared to delay that effort — which would mean either deferring retirement of the space shuttle or leaving the nation unable to launch astronauts for an indefinite period — NASA has little choice but to forge ahead with the information it has, and be prepared to deal with the surprises that surely lie ahead.