Problems persist with “Moon 2024”

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Credit: the verge.com

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just delivered yet another report to Congress documenting continuing cost growth and schedule delays in the major systems that NASA is developing to return people to the Moon — by 2024, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine insists.

The title of the new report says it all: “NASA HUMAN SPACE EXPLORATION: Persistent Delays and Cost Growth Reinforce Concerns over Management of Programs.”

Here’s what GAO found in its investigation of cost and schedule for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew capsule, and supporting ground systems: “Due to continued production and testing challenges, [NASA’s]…three related human spaceflight programs have encountered additional launch delays and cost growth. In November 2018, within one year of announcing an up to 19-month delay for the three programs— [SLS], the Orion spacecraft, and supporting ground systems—NASA senior leaders acknowledged the revised date of June 2020 is unlikely. Any issues uncovered during planned integration and testing may push the launch date as late as June 2021. Moreover, while NASA acknowledges about $1 billion in cost growth for the SLS program, it is understated. This is because NASA shifted some planned SLS scope to future missions but did not reduce the program’s cost baseline accordingly. When GAO reduced the baseline to account for the reduced scope, the cost growth is about $1.8 billion.”

And there’s more: “In addition, NASA’s updated cost estimate for the Orion program reflects 5.6 percent cost growth. The estimate is not complete, however, as it assumes a launch date that is 7 months earlier than Orion’s baseline launch date. If the program does not meet the earlier launch date, costs will increase further. Updating baselines to reflect current mission scope and providing complete cost estimates would provide NASA management and Congress with a more transparent assessment of where NASA is having difficulty controlling costs. NASA paid over $200 million in award fees from 2014-2018 related to contractor performance on the SLS stages and Orion spacecraft contracts. But the programs continue to fall behind schedule and overrun costs. Ongoing contract renegotiations with Boeing for the SLS and Lockheed Martin for the Orion program provide NASA an opportunity to reevaluate its strategy to incentivize contractors to obtain better outcomes.”

What did GAO conclude? “NASA’s SLS, Orion, and EGS [ground support] programs NASA “has been unable to achieve agreed-to cost and schedule performance” for SLS, Orion, and ground support systems. “NASA acknowledges that future delays to the June 2020 launch date are likely, but the agency’s approach in estimating cost growth for the SLS and Orion programs is misleading. And it does not provide decision makers, including the Administrator, complete cost data with which to assess whether Congress needs to be notified of a cost increase, pursuant to law. By not using a similar set of assumptions regarding what costs are included in the SLS baseline and updated SLS cost estimates, NASA is underreporting the magnitude of the program’s cost growth. Similarly, NASA is underreporting the Orion program’s cost performance by measuring cost growth to an earlier-than-agreed-to schedule date. As a result, Congress and the public continue to accept further delays to the launch of the first mission without a clear understanding of the costs associated with those delays.”

“Finally, contractor performance to date has not produced desirable program cost and schedule outcomes. Ongoing and planned contract negotiations present an opportunity to restructure the government’s approach to incentives.”

Earlier this year NASA said it wanted to return people to the Moon by 2028. Then the White House directed NASA to do it by 2024. At the same time, it appears that NASA is unable to resolve the cost and schedule problems documented so thoroughly by the GAO.

As I wrote in a March 13 blog post, the administration’s budget request for NASA in 2020 proposes cutting SLS funding (now about $2 billion a year) by 17 percent. Since receiving the Moon-2024 directive, NASA administrator Bridenstine has said NASA will need supplemental billions a year to meet the 2024 goal. Where those billions will come from is not clear.

In 2014, the cost estimate for SLS was $9.7 billion, with first launch proposed for 2018. By 2018, NASA had spent about $11.9 billion on SLS. We still don’t have a firm date for the first launch of the SLS, as far as I know.

Bridenstine told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in March that he wanted to launch NASA’s so-called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in June 2020, on a “commercial rocket.” The SLS was intended to be the launch vehicle for EM-1, which would carry the Orion crew capsule – without crew – and a European-built service module into lunar orbit. (As of 2017, the cost estimate for Orion was $6.6 billion.) Weeks later, Bridenstine said the “commercial rocket” option was off the table.

As I follow the current “back to the Moon” saga, the words that keeping popping into my head include “smoke and mirrors” and “shell game.” The aerospace industry, led by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is certainly supportive of this initiative. The industry will make a ton of money on it. But, as far as I can tell, neither congressional support nor public support has materialized for the back-to-the-Moon initiative. So, again, I’ll ask, why? Why do we need to return people to the Moon? And why has neither congressional nor public support materialized?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we have a space program. But I think the space program we have is headed in the wrong direction. It would be nice to have a broad national dialogue on where we should be going and what we should be doing in space. (Alas, in the current political environment, I don’t see such a thing happening.) I was involved in two limited but useful efforts to collect public comment on this subject – the series of public forums held by the National Commission on Space in 1985-1986, and the series of town meetings held by NASA in 1992. I was not involved in a series of “future forums” held by NASA in 2008. Those forums were invitation-only events – meaning that NASA hand-picked attendees. And it’s not at all clear whether and how NASA, Congress, or the White House has incorporated any of this public feedback into its decision-making processes.

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of “Moon 2024.”

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