OIG report warns of Orion cost and schedule risks

A flat funding profile for the indefinite future increases the risk that NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) spacecraft will fall behind schedule, and will also delay the development of follow-on systems needed for missions to the surfaces of other worlds, according to a report released Thursday by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

“The incremental development approach NASA has adopted for the MPCV puts the Program at risk for increased cost and schedule delays,” concluded the OIG report. That incremental approach, it stated, is necessary since Orion does not have the traditional bell-shaped funding profile, but is instead projected to receive a constant $1 billion per year through 2018, according to the administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal.

Under this incremental approach, the report states, managers “allocate available funding to the most critical systems needed to meet the next development milestone.” The OIG concludes warns that this could lead to schedule and cost problems down the road, including some tests that have already been delayed, such as a test of Orion’s abort system that has been delayed four years to 2018. The program also have to overcome some technical problems, including the capsule being above its target weight and cracks in its heat shield.

Even if Orion overcomes those problems, the OIG report warns that there may be little for the spacecraft to do beyond orbital missions until the late 2020s because budgets don’t allow the development of additional exploration hardware. ” Under the current budget environment, it appears that obtaining significant funding to begin development of any such additional exploration hardware will be difficult and such development is unlikely to begin until sometime into the 2020s,” the report concludes. “Given the amount of time and money necessary to develop this hardware, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct surface exploration missions until the late 2020’s at the earliest.”

47 comments to OIG report warns of Orion cost and schedule risks

  • Dark Blue Nine

    Per the report, the milestones and reserves through EM-2 in 2021 (the first crewed flight) are now set to cascade — when one slips, they will all slip:

    “The Exploration Flight Test-1 delay was largely due to the limited availability of a launch vehicle to conduct the test as well as the need to correct unforeseen technical issues
    associated with heat shield, avionics, and spacecraft system integration conducted in FY 2012. The extra time and expense in addressing these technical issues could have a cascading effect on the MPCV’s Program schedule and the funding available for future tests. Under NASA’s incremental development approach, teams will not begin working on Exploration Mission-1 until the first test flight is completed. Consequently, any delays in the first test flight will likely delay the first crewed flight.”

    The risk matrix is also saturated with high and unrated risks. There are almost as many high and unrated risks as there are moderate and low risks:

    “NASA uses risk management as a tool to identify unanticipated problems that could adversely affect a program’s performance, schedule, cost, or safety. The Agency rates risks as high, moderate, or low based on the combination of their likelihood and consequence. The MPCV Program is tracking 248 risks – 61 high, 110 moderate, 30 low, and 47 that have not yet been rated.”

    From reentry mass to life support testing to the thermal shield, the vehicle faces multiple, major safety problems:

    “According to Program officials, the MPCV needs to weigh
    73,500 pounds or less at lift off to meet Program specifications and safety requirements. When the Exploration Mission-2 mass reduction activity began in FY 12, the projected total weight of the crewed mission was 78,944 pounds, or more than 7 percent over target weight. While MPCV has made progress in identifying and implementing weight reductions, concerns exist that these efforts
    will not be sufficient to alleviate the issue.”

    “Program officials eliminated thermal vacuum testing from Exploration Mission-1 and deferred other testing from Exploration Mission-1 to Exploration Mission-2. Changes to the test plans will decrease the amount of integrated testing and increase reliance on individual component and subsystem testing. Program officials said they recognize the lack of integrated testing may increase technical risks to development of the spacecraft’s Environmental Control and Life Support System.”

    “The MPCV applies a material known as Avcoat, which
    was also used on Apollo spacecraft, to the capsule’s heat shield to serve as a protective barrier during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, the material has shown tendencies to crack under thermal conditions similar to those the capsule will experience during the mission in the deep space environment prior to reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.”

    And just brain-dead stupidity is driving further schedule issues:

    “The heat shield may not be completed and delivered to Kennedy to begin MPCV assembly, testing, and launch operations activities in time for Exploration Flight Test-1. NASA asked the manufacturer of Avcoat to restart the production line for the MPCV. However, manufacturing has
    been slow due to the availability of parts, fabrication complexity, and staffing and training issues.”

    “Problems with the computer systems that manage engineering data and drawings have caused design engineers to experience 3 to 5 hours of delay per day when performing routine tasks such as extracting drawings from the database.”

    Just sad. Someone needs to put this poor capsule out of our misery.

    • josh

      avcoat. they’re using technology from 50 years ago instead of making good use of new, better alternatives like pica x. this program is an utter mess.

      • brian

        PICA-X is a proprietary material of SpaceX, not available for use by
        NASA. It is also almost identical to PICA, a material developed by NASA around the same time as AVCOAT.

  • pathfinder-01

    Well that report just about sums up the state of things. However 7% overweight equals about 5,000 pounds too heavy that is quite a bit.

    • Neil Shipley

      Normally you would have a mass margin at the start of the program, not a mass deficit. This is just total incompetence. Compare to SpaceX Dragon and the DragonRider program, CST-100 program or DreamChaser program. No mass issues have arisen whatsoever. Why is it so hard for NASA and MPCV?

      As for the heatshield, again SpaceX looked at Avcoat and decided it was unsuitable. Instead, they took NASA Pica and improved on it to develop Pica-X, apparently a
      superior material that has stood up better than expected to the thermal demands of leo return and according to Musk, can withstand a Mars direct return.

      DBN has it right. It just needs to be put out of it’s misery.

      • Jim Nobles

        The overweight problem may be the result of the original design being modified so many times. With all the spec changes they might have been better off doing a clean-sheet after they got the (hopefully) final requirements.

        Or put it out for bid which of course they cannot do.

        • Malmesbury

          A big issue is the oversize LAS (required in the presence of solids). That thing is the size of an IRBM.

          Orion has to be strong enough to push that thing through MaxQ *and* not get torn to pieces if it fires, pulling it forward at 18g….

          Building a structure that is tough in compression and tension and empty space in the middle….

          • Jim Nobles

            Yeah, they should have gone with a pusher LAS where the worst possibe loads would have been in one direction. But instead they went full Flintstone with nearly the whole system design.

        • Neil Shipley

          No it wasn’t just that. The Orion design geniuses thought they could simply scale up the Apollo mould line and go from there. That’s where the whole mess started from.

  • Fred Willett

    This is no surprise. The Augustine committee showed clearly that there were insufficient funds in NASA to build a HLV (SLS)AND exploration hardware all at the same time.
    And that was way back in 2009.

  • Thank you, Congress.

    But hey, look at that monster rocket! It’s so …phallic!

    Who cares if it has no place to go! It’s big! And it employs people!

  • Florida Today on the OIG report:

    “Orion’s Budget and Tech Concerns Mount”

    But isn’t that animation pretty?! Did we mention it’s big?!

    • Hiram

      “Did we mention it’s big?!”

      It’s not only big, but we can’t afford to launch it, so it’s guaranteed to sit around so people can continue to admire its bigness.

  • James

    When you don’t have enough money to deal with development problems, I.e. lack of reserves, as a Program Manager you either cut content and/or push the schedule to the right. Inevitably costs willnrise. This is what befell JWST ( and look how nice that turned out) , this is what befell Cx, and as everyone who visits this blog has predicted would happen -as Congress has chronically not answered NASA’ funding requests – this is now the fate of SLS/Orion.

    The future for this program is very predictable, one only need to look at NASA ‘s past to see history shall repeat itself once again. The dysfunctional performance of the Congress, OMB, White House, NASA, “quad” is very consistent and too much to overcome if one wants to develop hardware systems on time and on budget.

    Once SLS/Orion are cancelled, NASA needs to give up developing HSF systems, and focus on less schedule and budget sensitive endeavors such as R&D. R&D can be late and cost more than one thinks it will but it won’t be of major impact if it is not feeding some larger development efforts – which in NASA’s new future it wouldn’t.

    And the chronic development dysfunctions that are being dramatized by the HSF side of NASA are creeping into the robotic side of NASA. One need only to notice the language in the Senate Authorization Committte bill that calls for NASA to utilize Discovery and New Frontiers Cost models vs. $1B plus Flag Ship models to see that the dysfunctional ‘quad’ is setting its sites on SMD

  • amightywind

    No problem. Bolden just needs to pull out the meat cleaver and find the necessary funds from the rest of NASA’s lame portfolio.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      More money can’t fix the kind of idiocy found in the IG’s report:

      “Problems with the computer systems that manage engineering data and drawings have caused design engineers to experience 3 to 5 hours of delay per day when performing routine tasks such as extracting drawings from the database.”

      If engineers are spending half their work day just uploading and downloading files, then a project has no hope of getting to the finish line, no matter how much money is thrown at it.

    • Vladislaw

      He should take that meat cleaver to the SLS and MPCV .. and use the money for actual hardware that will fly.

    • josh

      orion and sls are the lamest projects in the whole agency. they should be the first to go, and they will.

  • Here’s the video summary of the OIG report:

    Pretty much hits the nail on the head.

  • amightywind

    Parsing language and evasiveness is a hallmark of this corrupt administration. Bolden should be embarrassed.

  • guest

    What amazes me is that all of these problems have been known right since the outset back in 2005-2006; Orion was over-sized and overweight since its start owing to poor establishment of requirements. The idea it is now way behind schedule and over budget is inexcusable-the budget and schedule meant for an entire spacecraft is now just used for a small fraction of that vehicle and yet they still cannot make it work. Yet NASA takes no corrective action. They just continue on in exactly the same direction. No technical corrections. No personnel corrections. I’ve wondered, are they all just crossing their fingers or maybe they are hoping the program will be cancelled and put it out of its misery.

    • Vladislaw

      Can you predict how the committees will respond to this next time NASA is on the hill? Congress will just say everything is going along fine .. nothing will change .. just keep EVERY make work job in place .. remember it is not the actual results that are important .. it’s those jobs in my district that have to be saved at any cost.

    • josh

      that’s correct. they get to spend the same amount of money but now they just have to develop the crew capsule for it. and they still fail.

  • Jim Nobles

    It almost looks like SLS is ln better shape than Orion but Orion has a pseudo-boilerplate mission next year so there’s no way they’re going to take any drastic action now.

  • josh

    cancel orion and sls now, both are a waste of time and money. this simply can’t be said often enough.

  • Here’s a line buried in the report that no one so far seems to have noticed:

    Assuming this budget profile and current development schedule, NASA plans to spend approximately $16.5 billion developing its crew vehicle by the time of the first crewed flight currently planned for 2021.

    A Shuttle orbiter, in current dollars, was about $2 billion.

    • Matt McClanahan

      You’re comparing development cost for Orion to construction cost, after development, of an individual Shuttle. Doesn’t work that way. We’d have to wait for Orion #2 or #3 to be built before having a good idea of what the incremental cost of a new one actually is. Even then, comparing them doesn’t make any sense, since the Shuttle was an LEO craft only, and Orion is specifically for BEO missions. If Orion ever is used for an LEO mission (such as going to the station), it will be a staggering waste of money.

      • If Orion ever is used for an LEO mission (such as going to the station), it will be a staggering waste of money.

        The last eight words are true even without the preliminary clause.

      • Coastal Ron

        Matt McClanahan said:

        …since the Shuttle was an LEO craft only, and Orion is specifically for BEO missions.

        Yet really, if you look at what NASA is spending, NASA is only building the capsule itself, not any of the hardware that makes the Orion BEO capable. The Service Module is being built – and funded – by ESA.

        So $16B for a capsule that can only keep it’s passengers alive for the short trip back to the surface of the Earth – but not alive during any stay in space.

        And you don’t think the Orion/MPCV is hideously expensive?

  • Fred Willett

    If Orion fails don’t worry. Commercial has 3 spacecraft in development that are all on time on budget and cost a fraction of what Orion is costing.

    • Fred Willett wrote:

      If Orion fails don’t worry. Commercial has 3 spacecraft in development that are all on time on budget and cost a fraction of what Orion is costing.

      And that’s the bottom line that someone has to deliver to the congressional space subcommittees. How much longer will they continue to send Orion pork to their districts while it becomes increasingly obvious that the private sector can do it better and cheaper?

      Florida Today ran a story yesterday about how NASA and the U.S. Navy are dusting off 1960s-era manuals for how to retrieve crewed capsules from the ocean.

      During the glory days of the U.S. space program in the 1960s and ‘70s, astronauts returning to Earth splashed down at sea in their capsules and were picked up by the Navy in a triumphant moment that made for stirring TV. Now, NASA and the Navy are training again for the first such recovery in a generation.

      On Thursday, they completed several days of tests, practicing the retrieval of an unmanned mock-up of the Orion capsule that the U.S. hopes to send someday to an asteroid and Mars.

      Navy divers and the crew of the USS Arlington carried out the exercise in the calm waters of the Elizabeth River at a Naval Station Norfolk pier.

      Why are we doing this?

      It’s because the members of Congress want to relive their childhood fantasies of doing Apollo again.

      Meanwhile, SpaceX is working on an advanced crew version of Dragon that can soft-land on a pad. The Boeing CST-100 will use airbags to land in the desert. The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, being a spaceplane, will land on a runway.

      I understand that an Orion returning from deep space will have a higher velocity, but there are other ways to do this that NASA isn’t allowed to explore.

    • Matt McClanahan

      None of the commercial crew vehicles are being designed for BEO missions. Obviously SpaceX wants to take a version of Dragon to Mars, but the version of Dragon currently being developed under CCDev isn’t it.

      • Jim Nobles

        I believe the manned Dragon currently being developed will be quite capable of being outfitted for any mission Orion might be used for in the next 10-15 years. SpaceX has been thinking “Mars!” since the day it was founded.

        I give little merit to the “but Orion is for BEO” argument. I think it is something that SLS/Orion supporters say hoping that the listener doesn’t know enough about what’s going on to understand they are being spun a bit.

        • Matt McClanahan

          A manned Mars-bound Dragon will require several capabilities which are of no use in LEO. Long range comms, radiation tolerant computers and pressure vessel, room to get in & out of spacesuits, etc. Similarly, the versions of Dragon that go to ISS have components that would be pointless to take to Mars. Grappling pin for ISS capture, remote control systems, parachutes, etc. If SpaceX really was developing the current crewed Dragon iteration to be capable of going to Mars, they’d be wasting a great deal of time and resources. They will of course learn a lot during CCDev that will be of use when it comes time to build a Mars-bound Dragon, but they will be two substantially different craft beyond the general hull structure & components.

          • Jim Nobles

            “I believe the manned Dragon currently being developed will be quite capable of being outfitted for any missioñ Orion might be used for in the next 10-15 years.”

            I do not anticipate NASA (or Congress) mounting a mission to Mars in that timeframe. Elon claims he might though but l’ll believe that when it happens.

          • A_M_Swallow

            Most of the additional features for the Mars trip including long range comms can be put in a mission module. Dragon will however need radiation hard computers to survive trips to Mars or even lunar orbit.

            The grappling pin may be useful if there is a Mars spacestation.

            • Neil Shipley

              SpaceX doesn’t use rad-hardened equipment. They’ve chosen the multiple redundancy route which was proven successful in the COTS 2/3 mission where they lost one of their computers but pressed on with the other 2. They had a choice of re-synch’ing the hit one but chose not to at that point as it would have held up docking.
              Point is they have a strategy beyond rad-hardened equipment and the associated cost. It also tied them to an outside supplier which they don’t like.

              • Coastal Ron

                Neil Shipley said:

                Point is they have a strategy beyond rad-hardened equipment and the associated cost. It also tied them to an outside supplier which they don’t like.

                Another example of how SpaceX chooses innovative solutions. Instead of making their hardware less likely to fail, they make their hardware more able to recover from failure.

                This article from Aviation Week talks about the supply chain problems NASA is having with radiation hardened electronics for the SLS and Orion – yet more reason they won’t be able to keep to schedule (or budget).

          • Coastal Ron

            Matt McClanahan said:

            A manned Mars-bound Dragon will require several capabilities which are of no use in LEO.

            If you think of space exploration in the mode of Apollo, then you would be right. But that is not the way we will be leaving the vicinity of Earth – not in capsules. Haven’t you learned anything from the 12+ years we’ve occupied space on the ISS?

            The primary task for a capsule is to safely return it’s cargo back to the surface of a planet with an atmosphere. Traveling between planets is not it’s primary function, although it could be pressed into service as a lifeboat, but even then it’s far heavier and smaller than purpose-built space-only lifeboats would be.

            Bottom line here is that you have to stop thinking that the Orion/MPCV is going to be used as the primary vehicle for going anywhere, and because of that the same goes for other capsules like the Dragon. The Dragon could be brought along on the trip to Mars for use for we reach Mars and want to land somewhere, but it won’t be used during the trip, and won’t need any of the items you listed.

            If SpaceX really was developing the current crewed Dragon iteration to be capable of going to Mars, they’d be wasting a great deal of time and resources.

            Apparently you have missed the whole point of what SpaceX does. They start simple, learn their lessons, apply them, and then evolve based on what they learned. To assume that the crew-version of the Dragon they are working on for Commercial Crew is the version they would take to Mars is a little myopic, don’t you think? According the Inspiration Mars they think it could go, but that doesn’t mean that Musk isn’t going to be evolving the design between now and when he finally sends hardware to Mars.

            • Neil Shipley

              Absolutely agree. SpaceX are also working up their design for their MCT which rumour has it stands for Mars Colonial Transport or not.

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