ISS Success Riding on Transportation Solutions

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The following is from testimony prepared for a March 28 U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on “Securing the Promise of the International Space Station: Challenges and Opportunities.”

The construction of the international space station (ISS) is a significant technical achievement. In essence, NASA and its international partners have assembled and constructed a skyscraper-sized laboratory in low Earth orbit. This achievement involved dedication and effort on the part of all participating nations and individuals.

With construction completed and a full crew of six astronauts onboard, the ISS stands poised to deliver scientific breakthroughs enabled by its unique capabilities. The potential of the ISS program to deliver on the promise of scientific discovery, however, is inextricably linked to NASA’s ability to safely access, sustain and fully utilize the laboratory in orbit.

Now that ISS construction is finished, NASA and the ISS program face several major challenges. First and foremost, NASA must be able to transport cargo and crew to and from the ISS.

We have been reporting on the difficulties associated with sustaining the ISS in the post-space shuttle era since May 2005 when we first recommended that NASA take actions to determine the best available options for supporting the station after shuttle retirement. In July 2006, we expressed our initial concerns regarding NASA’s acquisition strategy for the shuttle’s replacement, the human spaceflight system known as Constellation, because of lack of a sound business case based on resources that are matched to requirements, a stable design and well-defined cost estimates. Since 2008, we have cautioned that the use of international launch vehicles is only a back-up and a less-capable means of supporting the station, as well as raised concerns about the ambitious schedules for the vehicles being developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.

In a November 2009 report, we iterated our concerns that limited international partner vehicle capacity and potential delays in planned commercial vehicle development could impede efforts to maximize utilization of all ISS research facilities. In 2011 reports and testimony, we observed that commercial cargo launch development remained behind schedule and, even when coupled with international partner launch capacity, may not cover all of the ISS anticipated needs beginning in 2014.

NASA is relying on 51 flights of international partner and commercial vehicles to transport cargo to the ISS from 2012 through 2020, but agreements for international flights after 2016 are not in place and the commercial vehicles are unproven. NASA has agreements in place with the European and Japanese space consortiums for their respective vehicles — the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) — to conduct cargo resupply missions beginning in 2012 through 2016.

NASA’s current plans anticipate employing a total of 12 international partner launches — eight from 2012 to 2016 and four from 2017 through 2020. NASA does not have agreements in place for international partners to provide cargo services to the ISS beyond 2016. NASA plans to use the ATV for a number of cargo flights through 2014, but no longer anticipates its use after that time. NASA plans to use HTV for a number of cargo flights through 2016, but its negotiations with the Japanese partners for flights beyond 2016 are in their infancy.

NASA also plans to use two types of domestic commercial launch vehicles to maintain ISS from 2012 through 2020. Development of these vehicles — the Falcon 9 and Antares — was fostered under a NASA-initiated effort known as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. These vehicles are being developed by private industry corporations — Falcon 9 by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Antares by Orbital Sciences Corp. In late 2008, NASA awarded contracts to both companies to provide cargo transport services to the ISS. Only SpaceX will be able to safely return significant amounts of cargo to Earth, such as the results of scientific experiments. NASA anticipates that SpaceX will begin providing that capability in 2012.

Commercial vehicles are essential to sustaining and utilizing the ISS. SpaceX and Orbital are scheduled to fly 20 of the 28 launches NASA plans through 2016 and follow-on commercial resupply vehicles are expected to fly 19 of the 23 launches from 2017 through 2020.

This plan relies on commercial vehicles meeting anticipated — not proven — flight rates. As we have previously reported, both SpaceX and Orbital are working under aggressive schedules and have experienced delays in completing demonstrations. NASA has made efforts to accommodate delays in commercial vehicle development, including use of the final shuttle flight in July 2011 to pre-position additional ISS spares. However, if the commercial vehicle launches do not occur as planned in 2012, the ISS could lose some ability to function and sustain research efforts due to a lack of alternative launch vehicles to support the ISS and return scientific experiments back to Earth.

If the international partner agreements and commercial service provider contracts do not materialize as NASA plans for the years beyond 2016, this could lead to a potential cargo shortfall.

NASA faces two major challenges in transporting crew to the ISS — adjusting its acquisition strategy for crew vehicles to match available funding and deciding if and when to purchase crew seats on the Russian Soyuz in case domestic commercial crew vehicles are not available as planned in 2017.

In 2010, President Barack Obama directed NASA to transition the role of transporting humans to low Earth orbit to commercial space companies. Consequently, in 2010 and 2011 NASA entered into funded and unfunded Space Act agreements with several companies to develop and test key technologies and subsystems to further commercial development of crew transportation service. NASA’s intent was to encourage private-sector innovation and procure safe, reliable transportation service to space at a reasonable price. Under this acquisition approach, NASA plans to procure seats for crew transportation to the ISS from the private sector through at least 2020.

In 2011, we reviewed NASA’s plan for contracting for additional commercial crew development efforts and found the agency’s approach employed several good acquisition practices including competitive contracting that — if implemented effectively — limit the government’s risk. As we also noted in that report, NASA’s funding level for fiscal year 2012 is almost 50 percent less than it anticipated when it developed its approach for procuring commercial crew services. Given this funding level, NASA indicated it could not award contracts to multiple providers, which weakened prospects for competition in subsequent phases of the program. The main premise of its procurement approach to control costs — full and open competition for future phases of the program — therefore was likely no longer viable. Without competition, NASA could become dependent on one contractor for developing and providing launch services to the space station. Reliance on a sole source for any product or service increases the risk that the government will pay more than expected, since no competitors exist to help control market prices. As a result of this funding decrease, NASA adjusted its acquisition strategy. The agency now plans to enter into another round of Space Act agreements to further the development of commercial crew vehicles and has delayed the projected purchases of commercial crew transportation until 2017.

Additionally, the agency faces another looming challenge — a decision about if and when to purchase crew space on the Russian Soyuz vehicle. NASA will likely need to decide by the end of 2013 whether to purchase additional seats that might be needed beyond 2016 because the lead time for acquiring addition seats on the Soyuz is three years. However, in the 2013 time frame, NASA cannot be fully confident that domestic crew efforts will succeed because the vehicles will not yet have entered the test and integration phase of development.

Although NASA has done a credible job of ensuring that the ISS can last for years to come, the question that remains is whether NASA will be able to service the station and productively use it for science. Routine launch support is essential to both, but the road ahead depends on successfully overcoming several complex challenges, such as technical success, funding, international agreements, and management and oversight of the national laboratory. If any of these challenges cannot be overcome, it will be contingent upon NASA to ensure that all alternatives are explored — in a timely manner — to make full use of ISS.

 

Cristina Chaplain is director of acquisition and sourcing management for the U.S. Government Accountability Office.