This afternoon the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a new report on the status of NASA’s Constellation program. That report was requested by Congressman Bart Gordon, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, who issued a press release about the report right after it came out. The GAO report, according to Gordon, demonstrated that Constellation has suffered from funding shortfalls that has hobbled its development.
“[I]t should come as no surprise that funding is at the center of NASA’s inability to complete the work necessary to build confidence in the cost and schedule estimates the agency develops for Constellation,” Gordon says in the press release. He adds: “GAO’s report provides a sobering indication of the negative impact that funding shortfalls can have on complex and technically difficult space flight programs like Constellation, no matter how dedicated and skillful the program’s workforce is.”
The report itself, though, isn’t that clear-cut. “The Constellation program has not yet developed all of the elements of a sound business case needed to justify entry into implementation,” it states. It does cite “cost issues and a poorly phased funding plan” as one problem, but also mentions “significant technical and design challenges” (including, but not limited to, the now-infamous thrust oscillation issue with the Ares 1 first stages), changes to the Constellation test strategy, and changes to acquisition strategy. While some of these other issues are linked to cost and funding issues, the GAO report isn’t blaming all of Constellation’s tribulations on “funding shortfalls”, as Gordon put it.
(A tangent: the Orlando Sentinel reported late Thursday that while the Ares 1 first stage motor test generated less vibration than expected, claims that it eliminated thrust oscillation as a technical concern were “overstated”.)
The GAO report’s recommendation isn’t for additional funding but the development of a sound business case “supported by firm requirements, mature technologies, a preliminary design, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time” before the program proceeds into the implementation phase. (Assuming, of course, that it does survive the current review.) That recommendation is accepted by NASA in a letter from new deputy administrator Lori Garver, who states that the agency is working towards developing that business case.