Mike Griffin is almost halfway through his immediate tenure as NASA Administrator. Before Griffin became NASA administrator, the President’s Vision for Space Exploration was not likely to succeed, but Griffin’s candor , harsh but necessary program decisions, and known expertise in spacecraft development have directly resulted in a high probability that it will now be achieved. However, recent Constellation decisions suggest that awards are being made without the hard credibility reviews necessary to develop and human-rate new manned spaceflight systems.
NASA faces extreme challenges as it retires the shuttle orbiter and readies both Ares 1 Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) . Now is the time for the administrator to articulate an integrated and equitable acquisition strategy for the remaining Constellation elements. This should include a clear focus on: (1) technical superiority in developing and human-rating new manned spacecraft; (2) proven resources to compress schedule; and (3) ability to adhere to estimated cost. This will ensure U.S. manned spaceflight continues after shuttle retirement in 2010 to return man to the Moon, and eventually to Mars.
Retiring the shuttle will reduce flight safety risks and free-up $3.7 -$4 billion per year starting in 2011 to complete both Ares 1 and Orion . However, Griffin inherited the vision as an unfunded policy mandate, without the $3 -$5 billion funding increase needed to cover parallel shuttle flights and Ares 1/Orion human-rating. Consequently, Griffin is taking steps to accelerate both Ares 1 and Orion, to attempt to close the gap in U.S. manned spaceflight from 2014 until approximately 2010.
Unfortunately, simultaneous acceleration of both Ares 1 and Orion have directly caused recent attacks by Congress and other external entities, including sharp Government Accountability Office questioning of NASA’s plan to immediately award a two-decade CEV franchise without artificial controls over contractor cost and schedule. That scrutiny drew strong support from both Republican and Democratic leadership on the House Science Committee, with hearings expected shortly.
It is widely expected that actual cost of development of Ares 1 , plus launch infrastructure, will grow beyond NASA’s 2007 plan by as much as $3 billion during 2007-2011. Consequently, any impact from Ares 1 critical path directly absorbs resources from other critical Constellation elements, such as Orion and the Commercial Orbital Transfer Services program. Additionally, NASA’s CEV contract calls for human-rating Orion by 2014, rather than the firm commitment of 2012-2013 expected by some lawmakers in exchange for allowing NASA to retire the shuttle in 2010.
During recent Constellation competitions, NASA has directly benefited from congressional and public support from the two major contractor teams that support NASA’s manned and unmanned spaceflight programs. However, it should be expected that such contractor support will directly diminish as these accelerated winner-take-all downselects are made. Current congressional support also will likely diminish as inherent engineering obstacles, schedule delays and significant cost-growth are encountered on both Ares I and Orion programs. The outcome of recent NASA competitions suggests that NASA’s commitment to mission suitability and past performance in developing and human-rating new manned space systems is being potentially eroded by lower-cost offers.
These trends are particularly troubling because they appear to overlook the proven experience of contractors with both domain knowledge and sufficient systems engineering capabilities to design, develop, integrate, test-flight and ultimately human-rate new launch vehicles and spacecraft for manned spaceflight. This suggests a potential lack of rigorous NASA questioning of overly optimistic contractor cost and schedule estimates . NASA’s primary consideration in awarding contracts should be the contractor’s ability to provide technically superior systems engineering and human-rating of new manned spacecraft combined with its ability to achieve a compressed schedule and adhere to projected cost.
Examining NASA’s recent lowest-cost awards, t here is limited evidence of rigorous use of cost-realism techniques to project true cost, especially when the contractor has little experience in developing a new vehicle for human spaceflight.
Additionally, the recent CEV request for proposals strongly suggests that Not-to-Exceed pricing of Command Modules/Service Modules Options under Production/Schedule B are not contractually binding, stating that the contractor has the right to unilaterally demand price adjustment before NASA actually exercises those CEV production options.
Since recent NASA Constellation awards appear to focus most heavily on untested cost and schedule estimates, the agency will have no control over cost-growth as the agency is forced to further accelerate risk-reduction flights to human-rate both Ares 1/Orion by 2012-2013, since Congress may refuse to allow NASA to retire the shuttle in 2010 if the first manned Orion flight is not until 2014 .
This places a clear premium on NASA development of an integrated acquisition strategy for balanced award of the individual elements of Constellation Systems. NASA leadership should focus on technical superiority in developing and human-rating new manned spacecraft; ability to accelerate schedule; and ability to contain estimated cost. Otherwise, arbitrary competitions have the potential to de-evolve into a piecemeal combination of lowest-cost technically acceptable awards, without regard to: (1) specialized domain expertise in development and integration of two-fault tolerance subsystems; (2) past performance; or (3) credible ability to accelerate human-rating of new manned spacecraft .
Failure of NASA to articulate an integrated acquisition strategy for the inter-related Constellation elements would also reward contractor teams for under-representing projected costs or for being recklessly optimistic in projecting performance schedules. Arbitrary NASA award of multi- decade franchises , based on flawed cost estimates or unachievable schedules, will also directly threaten NASA’s ability to manage overall Constellation risk precluding access to systems engineering expertise of both major contractor teams over the next four to six critical years of transition. This means that NASA is only harnessing one-half of available systems engineering expertise, and excluding the legacy expertise in development and human-rating of previous manned systems.
Consequently, NASA should take this immediate opportunity to articulate an integrated acquisition strategy for balanced and equitable development of key Constellation Systems among the two competing NASA spaceflight teams , while structurally incorporating strong cost competitiveness for space station missions through parallel Commercial Orbital Transfer Services program. Specific examples of potential alternatives include:
● Creation of an Orion national team, with clear organizational compartments, — one associated contractor division for the Command Module, and another for the Service Module (on co-prime or principal subcontractor basis).
● Additional options include government-furnished-equipment designation to associate contractor for Orion Avionics, Capsule Structure, Launch Abort System, human-rating Safety & Mission Assurance, etc.
● Allocation of long-lead development and production of Ares 1 Upper Stage Structure and Avionics in partnership with Marshall Space Flight Center, and ATK as prime contractor for the five -segment short range ballistic missile booster.
● Allocation of Ares 5 /CaLV. Could also possibly be coupled with expedited allocation of Earth Departure Stage because of common propulsion, and common Avionics.
● Allocation of Lunar Surface Access Module , to ensure two long-term manned spaceflight teams;
● Consideration should also be given to directed award of CLV/CEV Ground Operations, Flight Operations, Ground & Training Systems to NASA’s Johnson and Kennedy space centers to ensure two long-term manned spaceflight teams .
Jim McAleese is principle of McAleese & Associates, a McLean-based aerospace and defense law firm
. Comments are those of author alone and do not represent views of clients of McAleese & Associates.