GAO Questions NASA’s Management of Constellation Program

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Publication date: 
16 October 2009

The General Accountability Office released a report last month questioning NASA’s management of the Constellation Program. “NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case - including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time - needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase,” concluded the GAO.

NASA wants to return humans to the moon, and eventually travel to Mars, using space hardware developed under the Constellation Program.  The six-passenger Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle  will sit atop the two-stage Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle.

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) requested that GAO, an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, review the Constellation Program.  To date, $10 billion has been obligated for the program, a fraction of the more than $97 billion expected to be spent on all hardware, including a much larger launch vehicle, the Ares V, through 2020.  The program has faced numerous design, testing, manufacturing and funding challenges.  To reduce risk, NASA delayed the first manned flight from September 2014 to March 2015, shifted the program’s attention to the servicing of the International Space Station, and deferred work on lunar requirements.

The Ares I Launch Vehicle and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle programs are scheduled to conclude their formulation phase in mid-2010.  This  phase demonstrates a cost-effective program capable of meeting NASA’s objectives, and includes  a preliminary design and non-advocate reviews.   The non-advocate review gives NASA management an independent assessment of a program’s readiness to move to the implementation stage.

The twenty-eight page report title aptly summarizes GAO’s finding: “Constellation Program Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case is Established.”GAO explains:  “The business case is the essential first step in any acquisition program that sets the stage for the remaining stages of a program, namely the business or contracting strategy and actual execution or performance.” The report summarizes GAO’s findings as follows:

  • “significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the mass of the Orion vehicle, represent considerable hurdles that must be overcome in order to meet safety and performance requirements;”
  • “a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of workforce and developmental activities.”

Later in the report, GAO states: “The Constellation program has not yet developed all of the elements of a sound business case needed to justify entry into implementation. Progress has been made; however, technical and design challenges are still significant and until they are resolved NASA will not be able to reliably estimate the time and money needed to execute the program. In addition, cost issues and a poorly phased funding plan continue to hamper the program.”  The report later states: “technical design and other challenges facing the program are not likely to be overcome in time to meet the 2015 date, even with changes to scope and requirements.”

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