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Watchdog Agency Issues Warning On Ares I Rocket Program

By | December 3, 2007

      GAO Recommends Delay In Ares If Needed For Improvements

      NASA has made progress in designing the Ares 1 next-generation rocket development program, but more work must be done to eliminate many risks in the program concerning requirements, costs, schedule, technology and more, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated in a report released Friday.

      If the risks can’t be eliminated soon, then the Ares preliminary design review now set for July should be postponed, the GAO recommended.

      Contractors working on the multi-segment Ares program include The Boeing Co. [BA] and Alliant Techsystems [ATK]. The Ares rocket would boost the next-generation U.S. spacecraft, Orion, into space, beginning with a manned flight in 2015.

      Orion-Ares, being developed in the Constellation Program, will succeed the current space shuttle fleet, which is to retire in 2010, leaving a half-decade gap when the United States won’t be able to fly even one astronaut into low Earth orbit.

      But the GAO, the watchdog agency, in a report to Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said the Ares program faces risks as it hastens to develop Ares and possibly shrink that five-year gap.

      To be sure, "NASA has been taking steps to build a business case — demonstrating the project is achievable within the constraints of time and money and other resources NASA has available — for Ares I," the GAO conceded.

      "This has included relying on established technology and adopting an acquisition strategy that emphasizes attaining knowledge on cost, schedule, and technical and development feasibility before commitments are made to long-terms investments."

      However, the Ares project leadership "also acknowledges that many risks are present and is undertaking an array of activities to track and mitigate those risks," the GAO added.

      As to the risks, "NASA has not yet developed the knowledge needed to make sound investment decisions for the Ares I project," the GAO found. "Principally, there are gaps in knowledge about requirements, costs, schedule, technology, design, and production feasibility.

      "Our work shows that successful program execution is dependent on having these elements in place at the time long-term investment commitments are made."

      There still is time to make improvements in the program structure and knowledge, though doing so may be challenging, the watchdog agency stated.

      "While NASA still has 10 months under its own schedule to close gaps in knowledge about requirements, technologies, costs, and time and other elements needed to develop the Ares I system, the gaps we identified are fairly significant and challenging given the complexity and interdependencies in the program," the report found.

      "For example, continued instability in the design of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle is hampering the Ares I project’s efforts to establish firm requirements, the aggressive J-2X upper stage engine development schedule is not synchronized with the rest of the project, and it is unclear if NASA has allocated sufficient funding to the project."

      The Orion spaceship that could carry a crew to the moon is being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT]. The J-2X engine is being provided by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, working under parent company United Technologies Corp. [UTX].

      Given those findings, GAO stated the Ares program should be slowed, if needed, to first form the needed program changes. "GAO recommends NASA establish a sound business case for Ares I before proceeding beyond preliminary design review (now set for July 2008), and if necessary, delay the preliminary design review until the project’s readiness to move forward is demonstrated," the report concluded.

      The full 33-page report titled "NASA: Agency Has Taken Steps Toward Making Sound Investment Decisions for Ares I but Still Faces Challenging Knowledge Gaps," can be read in full at on the Web.

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