GAO warns of Orion cost and schedule concerns

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WASHINGTON — NASA has a less than 50 percent chance of achieving its goal of launching the first crewed Orion mission in August 2021, and pressing towards that goal could result in additional budget and schedule problems, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report warned.

NASA, in a review of the program in September 2015 known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), concluded Orion would be ready for that first crewed mission, known as Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), by April 2023. That review was set at the 70 percent joint confidence level, meaning the program has a 70 percent chance of being ready by that date.

At that time, and in subsequent statements, agency officials have said they are working to a more aggressive internal goal of August 2021 for the EM-2 mission. “Right now, we’re holding EM-2 to an August ’21 launch date,” Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said at a July 25 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee in Cleveland.

However, the same joint confidence level analysis shows that NASA has only a 40 percent chance of having Orion ready for EM-2 by that August 2021 date, according to the GAO report. That is below NASA policy that sets a minimum confidence level of 50 percent for program goals.

“Therefore, the program’s cost and schedule is aggressive beyond agency policy, and may increase the risk that the program goes over budget and does not meet its schedule,” the GAO report states.

The GAO also raised questions with NASA’s budgeting for Orion. While the agency is still working towards an August 2021 goal, it is requesting funding that is consistent instead with the 2023 date from the KDP-C review. “As a result, NASA relies on the Congress to appropriate more funds than requested to stay on its internal Orion schedule,” the report argued.

Congress has provided additional funding for Orion in recent years, but the GAO cautioned that it was “unrealistic” for NASA to expect to receive more than requested in future years. “Nevertheless, the program’s internal goal would require appropriation levels of—on average—$75 million above the level of funding it plans to request to meet its committed baseline, which NASA identified in KDP-C documents, each year through at least fiscal year 2019,” the report concludes.

The GAO was also concerned with how the Orion program was managing cost reserves that would be used to deal with problems during its development. The program has decided to spend most of the funds it has received in recent years to support ongoing work, setting side very little in reserves to deal with problems. That approach means, the report said, “any time a significant technical issue arises, the program has had to reorder efforts or defer work.

That could, the GAO warned, cause problems in the future for Orion, which “may find itself in a similar situation to that experienced by the Constellation [and] JWST programs, which had minimal cost reserves in early years to handle technical challenges that manifested and forced the programs to defer work.”

The GAO recommended that NASA prepare an updated joint confidence level analysis of Orion to provide revised estimates “in adherence with cost and schedule estimating best practices.”

NASA, in a response included in the report from Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said it didn’t believe an updated analysis was warranted. “To date, as the GAO correctly noted, Orion continues to perform within the boundaries of the program cost and schedule commitment made at KDP-C,” he wrote.

NASA did agree on a second recommendation, to examine the cost of deferred work on Orion relative to its reserves. Gerstenmaier wrote that the work deferred to date because of limited reserves involved “task-level” items rather than major program elements. “These task-level deferrals, typically of several months duration, do not impact major program milestones or the critical path and have proven to be an effective aggressive management technique,” he wrote.

A second GAO report, also published July 27, examined NASA’s Space Launch System and Exploration Ground Systems programs. Both programs, the report concluded, are overcoming issues and making progress towards the EM-1 launch, planned for between September and November 2018, but have limited cost and schedule reserves.

In the case of ground systems, the GAO said that projects to modify the Vehicle Assembly Building and a mobile launch platform had already used up their entire schedule margin. “As a result, any future delays would have to be accommodated by using the overall program’s schedule reserve,” the report stated, of which there is only two months remaining to support a November 2018 launch.

NASA plans to evaluate the status of SLS, Orion and ground systems during a “build to synchronization” review scheduled for this summer, according to the report. However, the GAO said that cost and schedule issues will not be a major topic of the review, which will focus primarily on technical issues involved with bringing the three programs together for the EM-1 launch.

“By not re-evaluating the cost and schedule reserves, both programs may continue to make decisions that result in reduced knowledge to meet a schedule that is not realistic,” the GAO concluded.