Congress should consider limiting NASA spending on the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) program to nothing beyond the preliminary design review, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated.
NASA shouldn't enter into longer-term deals with contractors, the watchdog agency advised.
The GAO made its recommendation in a 22-page report to Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee that oversees NASA, and to Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, ranking Democrat on the panel. (To view the full report, please go to http://www.gao.gov on the Web and see report entitled "NASA: Long-Term Commitment to and Investment in Space Exploration Program Requires More Knowledge" and numbered GAO-06-817R.)
But NASA disagrees with the GAO view that it lacks sufficient knowledge to move ahead with the CEV program.
The GAO argues that there is a lot of money riding on this program, and it is critical to get it right.
NASA "plans to spend nearly $230 billion over the next two decades implementing the Vision for Space Exploration," GAO noted, referring to President Bush's vision of manned missions to the moon, Mars and beyond, as reported in our sister publication, Space & Missile Defense Report.
The CEV program aims to provide the spacecraft to take astronauts through the void of space. Companies seen in the program include Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co.
In January, NASA publicly released its Exploration Systems Architecture Study, which is an effort to identify the best architecture and strategy to implement the President's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, the GAO noted.
The cost estimate for implementing the ESAS just through the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2011, exceeds $31 billion, the GAO notes. Then the estimate through fiscal year 2018 is over $122 billion, and the estimate through fiscal year 2025 is nearly $230 billion.
These estimates include the architecture, robotic precursor missions, supporting technologies, and funding needed to service the International Space Station in those years.
What upsets the GAO is that NASA may be assembling a program that would cost far more than estimates, and then expect Congress to pony up more money to pay for the excess outlays. As well, budgets for some less-pressing programs might be raided to pay for the CEV.
"NASA plans to implement this architecture through a 'go as you can afford to pay' approach, wherein lower-priority efforts would be deferred, descoped, or discontinued to allow NASA to stay within its available budget profile," the GAO warned. "This approach assumes NASA's budget will increase moderately to keep pace with inflation."
For the GAO, this is an unrealistic expectation, when one considers the hard fiscal times facing the federal government, which already is awash in record budget deficits totaling hundreds of billions of dollars annually, at a time when baby boomers will begin retiring and place enormous additional strains on government finances.
"Given the long-term fiscal imbalances that will challenge the entire federal government now and in the future, it would be prudent for NASA to establish a program that reduces the risk that significant additional funding, beyond moderate increases for inflation, will be required to execute the program," the GAO stated.
While the GAO didn't itemize them, some of the tough money problems ahead (beyond Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) include paying for military hardware purchases that are soon going to soar in cost as production begins; covering homeland security programs; repairing crumbling infrastructure such as decades-old highways; and more.
"Government leaders will have to make difficult decisions to resolve such challenges, and the debate over the potential cost and the federal government's role in implementing the (Bush space exploration vision) are emblematic of the challenges the nation will need to resolve in the years ahead," the GAO observed.
The Science Committee leaders asked GAO to assess the extent to which NASA has identified the architecture and costs necessary to implement the Bush space vision, whether NASA's exploration architecture cost estimates fit within the agency's projected available budgets, and the risks associated with NASA's acquisition strategy for the CEV project.
Having completed those assessments, the GAO now finds that a massive budget crunch may lie ahead for the CEV program.
Accordingly, "We are recommending that the NASA Administrator [Michael Griffin] modify the current CEV acquisition strategy to ensure that the agency does not commit itself, and in turn the federal government, to a long-term contractual obligation prior to establishing a sound business case at the project's preliminary design review," the GAO recommended.
But NASA rejected that suggestion, arguing that it already possesses "the appropriate level of knowledge to proceed with its current acquisition strategy."