SLS and Orion: December 2020 Archives

GAO: NASA Human Space Exploration - Significant Investments in Future Capabilities Require Strengthened Management Oversight

"What GAO Found

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) again delayed the planned launch date for Artemis I, the first uncrewed test flight involving three closely related human spaceflight programs--the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System (SLS), and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS). Together, these programs aim to continue human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. The most recent delay, to November 2021, resulted in part from manufacturing challenges and represents a 36-month slip since NASA established a schedule to measure performance in 2014. This new launch date does not account for the effects of COVID-19. According to NASA officials, COVID-19 delays and schedule risks will place pressure on NASA's ability to achieve this launch date.

Development cost estimates for key programs also increased. The cost of the SLS program increased by 42.5 percent and the EGS program by 32.3 percent since 2014, for a combined increase of over $3 billion, bringing the total to $11.5 billion. NASA does not plan to complete revised estimates for Orion, which are tied to the second, crewed test flight (Artemis II) before spring 2021.

NASA awarded billions of dollars in development and production contracts to support flights beyond Artemis I, but the flight schedule has changed frequently due to a lack of clear requirements and time frames for planned capability upgrades. Limited NASA oversight also places efforts to plan and execute future flights at risk of adverse outcomes, such as increased costs or delays. For example, NASA is committed to establishing cost and schedule performance baselines for these efforts, but it plans to do so too late in the acquisition process to be useful as an oversight tool. In addition, senior leaders do not receive consistent and comprehensive information at quarterly briefings on future efforts, such as a program to begin developing a more powerful upper stage for SLS. This is because current updates provided to NASA management focus primarily on the more short-term Artemis I and II flights. This approach places billions of dollars at risk of insufficient NASA oversight."

Keith's note: As you can see in the GAO report there is a series of dominoes that will fall and will push Artemis well past 2024: Green Run delays; shrinking times between Artemis I, Artemis II, and Artemis III, and less assurance that funding will be inplace to keep the whole party going. Also, there is a growing concern about flying Artemis II with full-up ECLSS and a crew for the first time and significant heartburn about flying a lunar lander with a crew for the first time on Artemis III. NASA now says that Artemis III will land without the Gateway - but that Gateway is needed in order for the Artemis program to be "sustainable". Yet Gateway will actually make the Artemis program harder to be "sustainable" given the delays and overruns experienced thus far. This cannot go on forever - can it? Nothing about this program has ever happend on time or within budget. If NASA can land humans on the Moon without Gateway in 2024 then it may actually be more "sustainable" to keep doing it that way.

Then there is this part of the report that reeks of naive faith-based program management. After a decade of delays and cost overruns, NASA is now hoping that "Boeing develops more expertise and certainty in the production of core stages and EUS." Why would Boeing want to change from a winning formula filled with cash and acceptance of delays?

"The contracts are predominantly cost-reimbursement type, under which the government bears the risk of increases in the costs. NASA is taking steps to control long-term program costs by planning to transition to fixed-price type contracting and other cost reduction strategies, but it will be years before NASA is in a position to do so. ... The SLS program plans to control long-term production costs of SLS core stages and EUS by structuring the SLS Stages Production and Evolution contract to allow a transition from costtype to firm-fixed-price deliverables. Program officials told us they expect the first series of core stages and EUS under this contract to be produced under cost-type orders, but they expect to eventually transition to the use of firm-fixed-price orders as Boeing develops more expertise and certainty in the production of core stages and EUS."

- Previous SLS/Orion posts
- Previous Artemis Posts

Update on Orion Final Assembly and Transfer, NASA

"While powering up the spacecraft to prepare for the pressurization of the crew module uprighting system, which ensures the capsule is oriented upward after splashdown, engineers identified an issue with a redundant channel in a power and data unit (PDU) on Orion's crew module adapter. The team is continuing with other closeout activities while troubleshooting the issue, including installation of temporary covers to ensure components are protected during ground processing and fit checks for bonded tile on the crew module side hatch."

Keith's note: It is likely that this fix will require months since the PDU is not all that easy to reach and things would need to be removed that are not designed to be removed once installed. It is rather unlikely that NASA would allow this Orion spacecraft to fly with this issue since the unit and its redundancy exist to meet some rather basic requirements set by NASA. The current plan (which is always on wheels) calls for the first full-up SLS/Orion launch (Artemis-1) to happen in November 2021. Add in delays caused by weather and the pandemic with the Green Run engine testing of the core stage, and it is becoming rather improbable that this launch will happen at any time in 2021.


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This page is an archive of entries in the SLS and Orion category from December 2020.

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