The U.S. Government Accountability Office is urging NASA to prevent development of the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle from proceeding into the

critical design phase until the agency

has a better handle on what it will take to field the new rocket.

NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale, in her written response to the GAO, agreed the agency has more to learn about the scope of work that lies ahead. She said NASA would not allow the Ares 1 project to move past a preliminary design review slated for July 2008 until the agency closes some of the gaps in its knowledge about technology, funding and the amount of time needed to complete the vehicle.

Among the chief concerns the GAO raised about Ares 1 is that NASA’s projected budgets through 2010 are inadequate for the work to be done, a point NASA does not dispute. The GAO also is concerned that NASA has only allowed seven years for the development of the rocket’s J-2X upper stage engine, noting that NASA’s last human-rated engine, the space shuttle main engine, took 9 years

to complete.

“The J-2X development effort represents a critical path for the Ares I project,” the report says. “Subsequently, delays in the J-2X schedule for design, development, test, and evaluation would have a ripple effect throughout the entire Ares I project.”

The report also points out that a January 2007 independent review questioned the cost-effectiveness of designing the Ares 1 main stage – a five-segment version of the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster – to be recovered and refurbished between flights. “According to NASA and contractor officials, the primary benefit of recovering the reusable solid rocket boosters is not financial in nature but is the knowledge gained through analysis of the recovered flight hardware,” the GAO report says. “However, NASA may need to consider expendable first stage options given the weight issues associated with both the Ares I and Orion vehicles. If NASA opts to pursue an expendable solution for the first stage, the overall Ares I design and requirements could change dramatically.”

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the lawmaker who requested the GAO assessment, said the report contained “a mix of good news and not-so-good news.”

“On the one hand, GAO has concluded that NASA is taking steps to demonstrate that the Ares I project is achievable within the constraints that the project faces,” Gordon said in a statement announcing the release of the report. “On the other hand, GAO has identified a number of significant challenges that will have to be overcome if the project is to succeed.”