GAO: NASA Fails to Budget for Delays, Cost Overruns in Delta 2 Replacement Strategy

By | November 30, 2010 | Feature, Government

[Satellite News 11-30-10] The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) urged NASA to retool its medium-launch transition strategy after it found that the agency’s plans lack an affordable and reliable replacement for the retiring Delta 2 launch vehicle as well as detailed estimates of the time and money required to resolve technical issues likely to arise during launch vehicle certification processes. 

NASA’s strategy to acquire a new medium-class launcher has focused on a competition between SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Orbital Sciences’ Taurus 2, but the agency may need to fall back on the heavy-lift Delta 4 and Atlas 5 if the SpaceX and Orbital Sciences vehicles are not ready in time, the GAO said in a Nov. 30 report, “Medium Launch Transition Strategy Leverages Ongoing Investments but Is Not Without Risk.”

The GAO claims that replacement delays could easily double the cost of the program. “As these costs are currently unknown, according to Science Mission Directorate officials, NASA has not yet budgeted for them. Further, both space station resupply vehicles have experienced delays, and more delays are likely as launch vehicle development is an inherently risky endeavor. Neither potential provider currently has the facilities needed to launch the majority of NASA Earth science missions requiring a medium capability,” the report said.

   Over the past 10 years, Delta 2 has handled 60 percent of NASA’s medium-class science mission. According to NASA projections, 40 percent of the agency’s total science missions through 2020 could be launched on a medium-class vehicle. With three remaining Delta 2 flights on NASA’s calendar and the U.S. Air Force no longer using Delta 2, NASA must cover all related infrastructure costs. Raymond James Analyst Chris Quilty told Satellite News that these costs, “currently stand at $45 million but could exceed $60 million if NASA has to extend Delta/Atlas use beyond 2012.” 

The GAO claims that NASA is not properly reserving for cost overruns and certification costs, which it estimates at $25 million. The report also states that NASA’s uncertain commitment to either replacement candidate could impact three medium-class science missions approaching preliminary design reviews and that NASA will need to select a launch vehicle by March 2011 at the earliest to cover them. The GAO’s conclusion is that delays are inevitable.

    Quilty agreed with the GAO’s assessment and said the agency is a long way from making a firm decision. “SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is currently the only provider of medium-class launch vehicle on the Launch Services 2 contract, although Orbital’s Taurus 2 is expected to on-ramp to the contract down the road. NASA estimates that it takes three years to certify a launch vehicle once a task order is awarded, and it expects to eventually certify both vehicles to the most stringent Category 3 requirements. But no task orders have yet been awarded to SpaceX or Orbital, which both need to establish a West Coast launch site for high-inclination orbits for 12 of 14 medium-class missions scheduled through 2020.”

Despite its bleak outlook on the situation, the GAO credited NASA in the report for managing its current resources. “NASA is taking an appropriate approach to help ensure the success of the remaining Delta 2 missions by adequately addressing workforce, support and launch infrastructure risks,” GAO Acquisition and Sourcing Manager Cristina Chaplain wrote in the report. “While NASA has a plan in place for obtaining this capability through Orbital and SpaceX’s vehicles, past experience with other development programs and recent history with both vehicles indicate that maturing and certifying these vehicles for use by science missions is likely to prove more difficult and costly than currently anticipated.” 

    In the recommendations, Chaplain warned that if SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are not successful in delivering upgraded launch vehicles to NASA in a timely manner, the agency will be forced to use more costly and time-consuming options, which could cut the number of science missions it can afford. “NASA’s Science Mission Directorate should identify and budget for additional contingency funding for projects requiring a medium-launch capability vehicle prior to the certification of Falcon 9 and Taurus 2. The agency also needs to address technical issues and shoulder delays in the certification process,” she said.

   NASA Spokeswoman Katherine Trinidad declined to comment on the report but said that the agency is “confident in its future launch vehicle strategies and working closely with its commercial partners on the transition.”

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