GAO Has Doubts About Griffin's VSE Implementation

GAO Report: NASA: Long-Term Commitment to and Investment in Space Exploration Requires More Knowledge

"NASA's current acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk of significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls because it commits the government to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case. NASA plans to award a contract for the design, development, production, and sustainment of the CEV in September 2006-before it has developed key elements of a sound business case, including well-defined requirements, a preliminary design, mature technology, and firm cost estimates."

  • GAO: NASA's Current Acquisition Strategy for the Crew Exploration Vehicle Places the Project at Risk of Significant Cost Overruns, Schedule Delays, and Performance Shortfalls, House Science Committee, Democratic Membership
  • GAO Releases Report Critical of NASA, Citing Financial Risks Involved With CEV Acquisition, House Science Committee
  • NASA Awards Contracts for Constellation Program Study
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    This report from GAO is only the beginning of what will likely be the unraveling of NASA's plans for Constellation. In fact, this report reminds me of the pushback that occurred a few years ago when the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) was championed as the next great thing for NASA. At that time, OMB submitted a budget in synch with Sean O'Keefe's priorities, which had the overly grandiose JIMO mission and other nuclear technologies at the top of the list. Those working on JIMO and the rest of the Prometheus Program knew that the mission would be exorbitantly expensive, but kept their mouths shut in hopes that O'Keefe had the political clout to keep things on track. The intentional but obvious lack of an early cost estimate raised the red flag that the project was ill-conceived. However, NASA bulled the project through, brought a prime contractor on board, and started spending hundreds of millions of dollars at the expense of other programs. Only a year later, NASA came out with a report that showed the cost to be $25 billion (see "The $25 Billion Acid Trip," in Space News' Washington Aerospace Briefing, Vol. 3, Issue 41, 6/2006). Needless to say, JIMO collapsed like a house of cards, but only after it had spent millions of taxpayer dollars on a doomed concept.

    A similar situation is going on now with CEV, CLV and the rest of the Constellation Program. However, it is even bleaker due to the rapidly deteriorating political environment. Since the unveiling of VSE in early 2004, the U.S. has embroiled itself halfway across the world in a conflict that has no end in sight. The cost of this war is growing without bounds. This coupled with the runaway spending of this Administration has resulted in the worse budget deficit in history. You only have to read the polls to see that most Americans feel that nearly everything touched by this Administration has soured. In fact, the situation closely parallels the days of 40 years ago when another Texan sat in the Oval Office.

    Admittedly, we did have a similar "adverse" political environment during Apollo. But the desperate situation in Vietnam, which ultimately drove Nixon to curtail U.S. ambitions in space, didn't come to light until late in the program. By then, the Apollo hardware had already been developed and there was enough momentum to fly seven lunar missions, but just barely.

    By 2008 and perhaps earlier, if current polls portend the 2006 election results, a lot of what this Administration has initiated will be viewed as toxic waste. Even if there is no wholesale wave of enmity toward Bush's policies, the drive to reign in government spending will be overwhelming. Mike Griffin and other top NASA managers realize this, and want to push flight hardware into the development pipeline before the VSE-friendly environment shifts. This suits the senators and congressmen with NASA constituents just fine, since to them, dollars are jobs, and jobs are votes. Until now, they have ensured that VSE and their centers are well-funded, but even they must eventually bow to fiscal realities.

    The only political aspect working in Constellation's favor, at least in the near-term, is the need to replace the Shuttle. However, the current approach of developing a new, government-owned launch vehicle derived from Saturn V and Shuttle hardware does not make sense. First of all, the design is almost completely politically driven - an attempt to keep Shuttle contractors and facilities in business as Shuttle winds down. Secondly, the case that the design is heavily rooted in heritage hardware is quite misleading. The derived elements, such as 5-segment SRBs, J-2X engine and upper stage, are entirely new systems and together, in the long run, will cost as much to build and operate as a "clean sheet" vehicle. Thirdly, NASA just does not have the experience or technical expertise to carry out this sort of effort in so short of window of opportunity. For instance, many of the people leading CLV are also the people who presided over other failed NASA "next great things," such as SLI, X-33, DC-X, NGLT, etc. They are expert at selling programs and getting them started, but do not have the experience in building and flying new launch systems.

    Clearly the first step in giving VSE any hope of staying alive in an increasingly adverse political environment is to rely on existing assets for crew launch capability. The Atlas and Delta have the necessary performance to take care of this need using either a NASA-developed CEV or COTS-derived system. Going with this approach would free up funds that could be used to shore up other NASA mission areas that have been decimated by the current approach. It could also enable NASA to begin concentrating on the CaLV and other systems needed to implement VSE, but at a more realistic pace of development.

    This part is just one of the telling gems in the report:

    "NASA's suggestion that it is maximizing competition by soliciting from industry its development, production, and management approach and that it will receive firm competitive prices from industry for completion of development and demonstration of two vehicles has little basis. First, while the current structure will allow for competition in the short term, the benefits of such competition will be short-lived. Without well-defined requirements, mature technologies, an approved preliminary design, and realistic cost estimates, NASA has insufficient information to ensure that it is obtaining firm competitive prices for the work conducted for the entirety of Schedule A especially for activities beyond the project's preliminary design review."

    In other words the design, schedule, and the prices obtained from the contractors are pure fantasy. Information from industry insiders has already indicated that the price just to modify the Thiokol provided Advanced Solid Rocket Motors (ASRM's) is over $3 billion dollars, an increase of $2 billion dollars when the project is barely beyond the power point stage. NASA confidently indicates that they can launch this bird in a boilerplate demonstration mission in 2008, also a fantasy as there are no avionics, no J2-X upper stage, and absolutely no one thinks that the SRB's can be flown without extensive redesign. When these objections are presented to ESMD and the administrator the response is "refer to rule #1, the Boss is always right". When the makers of the EELV point out, whether in papers at conferences or in hall chatter at the centers or events, that the EELV system is a superior solution with a lower cost to man rate, the management of these companies receive phone calls from senior NASA officials reminding them of rule #1. The rational that the Ares 1 and Ares 5 are Shuttle derived has already been abandoned as the post power point serious engineering is showing in order to squash multibillion dollar square Shuttle pegs into round Apollo II round holes is resulting in a morphing of the engineering design into something that is far closer to the Saturn V in design than the Shuttle. Teams of contractor engineers search archives in Houston, Huntsville, and other locations on a daily basis, including removing hardware from the Saturn's in museums, to figure out how to do this the right way.

    The CEV/CLV is already a debacle of epic proportions with the contractor teams saddled with requirements that change on a daily basis (as the GAO report infers), a launch vehicle with severe technical deficiencies, and 8A small business set asides that guarantee that minimally competent companies with little experience in this realm are placed in the critical path of the program. The sense of doom is so bad that many of the top engineers at the primes refuse to work on the CEV, preferring to remain with the more stable military programs. Everyone is expecting a repeat of 1992/93 when the Space Exploration Initiative collapsed under the weight of unrealistic schedules, reduced budgets, and a new president from a different party who cared little for the return to the Moon effort.

    NASA could save billions by just admitting the obvious and use an EELV derived system for the Ares 1 that would dramatically narrow the requirements definition process for the CEV as well. Unfortunately this dooms the Ares V in its current form as it removes the solid rocket boosters from the early development program which are critical path elements for the entire system. NASA could also admit that the Ares V is Shuttle derived in name only and with that admission free the contractors to really do their work and admit that the system will be far more of a Saturn V derived system than Shuttle. Engineering by management fiat doomed Space Station Freedom and gave us ISS. For the sake of the nation and our future in space, NASA ESMD management must listen to the voices on their own teams who tell them the truth and adjust your designs and dreams accordingly.

    The question that Horowitz and Griffin must ask themselves is do you want to have your idea of a perfect system that will never be built, or something that can be built within the funding limitations that you will have to live with? SEI died because of this lack of realism. Are we to repeat this in 2009 when the CEV/CLV system falls apart due to the same blindness?

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    This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on July 31, 2006 12:00 AM.

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