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.”