NASA:

More Knowledge Needed to Determine Best Alternatives to Provide Space Station Logistics Support

GAO-05-488: Published: May 18, 2005. Publicly Released: May 31, 2005.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) space shuttle fleet has been key to International Space Station operations. Since the grounding of the fleet in February 2003, Russia has provided logistics support. However, due to the limited payload capacity of the Russian space vehicles, on-orbit assembly of the space station stopped. In May 2004 and in February 2005, NASA testified before the Congress that it had assessed using alternative launch vehicles to the space shuttle for space station operations. NASA concluded that using alternatives would be challenging and result in long program delays and would ultimately cost more than returning the space shuttle safely to flight. Yet uncertainties remain about when the space shuttle will return to flight, and questions have been raised about NASA's assessment of alternatives. GAO was asked to determine whether NASA's assessment was sufficient to conclude that the space shuttle is the best option for assembling and providing logistics support to the space station.

NASA's 2004 assessment identified significant challenges associated with using alternative launch vehicles for space station assembly and operation. According to previous studies and our discussions with industry representatives, these challenges would likely preclude using alternative vehicles for assembly missions. However, NASA's assessment was insufficient to conclude that the shuttle was the best option for logistics support missions prior to the proposed retirement of the space shuttle in 2010. NASA relied primarily on headquarters expertise to conduct the informal assessment, and while we recognize that the extensive experience of its senior managers is an important element in evaluating alternatives, NASA officials did not document the proceedings and decisions reached in its assessment. As a result, the existence of this assessment of alternatives cannot be verified, nor can the conclusions be validated. NASA is currently evaluating responses from a September 2004 request for information from various commercial space transportation industries that could provide launch services to support space station operations, following retirement of the shuttle in 2010, until the station's planned retirement in 2016. NASA officials indicated that a commercial launch capability to support space station operations is possible prior to the proposed shuttle retirement in 2010, but stated that this capability would not eliminate any of the scheduled space shuttle flights. NASA is also re-examining its requirements for the type of scientific research to be conducted on the space station as well as the manifest requirements of the space shuttle. Combining the information gathered from commercial industry and a better definition of space station and shuttle requirements, NASA officials agree there is an opportunity to perform a more comprehensive assessment of alternatives, especially for logistics missions late this decade.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA's Comments: In June 2006, NASA submitted the International Space Station (ISS) Research and Utilization Plan to Congress. This plan describes the scientific investigations, strategic research, commercial opportunities, and technology developments to be accomplished on the ISS. When validated by independent assessment of the National Research Council, pending in FY 2007, this Plan will impact the logistics and resupply requirements for the ISS. Concurrently, NASA is developing two alternatives for ISS transportation services and has a third option in purchasing International space transportation capabilities. Alternative One--Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration (COTS). NASA is supporting the development of a commercial space economy through establishing NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo program and the COTS demonstration. NASA issued a challenge to U.S. industry for the best proposals for Earth-to-orbit space flight demonstrations in any of four crew and cargo delivery requirements for the ISS. COTS will be executed in two phases. On January 18, 2006, NASA released the Space Act Announcement for Phase I of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) project. The scope of the project will involve the demonstration and operation of an end-to-end space transportation system of services including ground operations and integration, launch, rendezvous, proximity operations, docking or berthing, orbital operations, reentry, and safe disposal or return. The demonstrations will culminate with a crew/cargo transportation mission to and from a low-Earth orbit test bed. NASA will pay participants for meeting technical milestones associated with performance, not cost. We expect to announce the proposals selected to receive funded agreements later this summer. We also plan for successful flight demonstrations of the selected capability to occur in the 2008-2010 timeframe. During the demonstration phase, NASA intends to provide assistance similar to an investor to help provide the necessary stimulation to ensure the success of this venture. Once private industry has successfully demonstrated one or more systems, NASA plans to enter the next phase of the Commercial Crew and Cargo program and purchase services from commercial providers, subject to the normal rules of congressional authorization and appropriation. Concurrently, industry will be able to provide these new services to non-NASA customers which will help spread the design, development, and operations costs, thereby reducing the price paid by the government customer. Alternative Two--Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). The Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), chartered in April 2005 to implement the Vision for Space Exploration, laid out a detailed plan to support human and robotic lunar exploration operations. The chosen configuration, patterned on the best of Apollo and Space Shuttle technology, provides a new CEV and its launch systems, and identifies key technologies required to enable this exploration architecture. The plan includes providing alternative transportation to the ISS, as well as enhanced safety for a crew, a straightforward upgrade path for Mars missions, and higher mission reliability. Following on the ESAS baseline study, NASA has produced a series of increasingly refined cost estimates (which include design, development, test, engineering and production costs) to support budget development for the architecture. NASA will continue to refine the design concepts and requirements that drive the architecture through Systems Requirements Review (SRR) in fall 2006. Analysis will continue until an executable program is baselined in the same timeframe as the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in 2008.

    Recommendation: To better position the agency to determine the best available option for providing logistics support to the space station, the NASA Administrator should direct current efforts to explore other space launch options to utilize a comprehensive and fully documented assessment of alternatives that matches mission requirements, and associated manifest, with the launch vehicles expected to be available.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA's Comments: In June 2006, NASA submitted the International Space Station (ISS) Research and Utilization Plan to Congress. This plan describes the scientific investigations, strategic research, commercial opportunities, and technology developments to be accomplished on the ISS. When validated by independent assessment of the National Research Council, pending in FY 2007, this Plan will impact the logistics and resupply requirements for the ISS. Concurrently, NASA is developing two alternatives for ISS transportation services and has a third option in purchasing International space transportation capabilities. Alternative One--Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration (COTS). NASA is supporting the development of a commercial space economy through establishing NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo program and the COTS demonstration. NASA issued a challenge to U.S. industry for the best proposals for Earth-to-orbit space flight demonstrations in any of four crew and cargo delivery requirements for the ISS. COTS will be executed in two phases. On January 18, 2006, NASA released the Space Act Announcement for Phase I of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) project. The scope of the project will involve the demonstration and operation of an end-to-end space transportation system of services including ground operations and integration, launch, rendezvous, proximity operations, docking or berthing, orbital operations, reentry, and safe disposal or return. The demonstrations will culminate with a crew/cargo transportation mission to and from a low-Earth orbit test bed. NASA will pay participants for meeting technical milestones associated with performance, not cost. We expect to announce the proposals selected to receive funded agreements later this summer. We also plan for successful flight demonstrations of the selected capability to occur in the 2008-2010 timeframe. During the demonstration phase, NASA intends to provide assistance similar to an investor to help provide the necessary stimulation to ensure the success of this venture. Once private industry has successfully demonstrated one or more systems, NASA plans to enter the next phase of the Commercial Crew and Cargo program and purchase services from commercial providers, subject to the normal rules of congressional authorization and appropriation. Concurrently, industry will be able to provide these new services to non-NASA customers which will help spread the design, development, and operations costs, thereby reducing the price paid by the government customer. Alternative Two--Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). The Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), chartered in April 2005 to implement the Vision for Space Exploration, laid out a detailed plan to support human and robotic lunar exploration operations. The chosen configuration, patterned on the best of Apollo and Space Shuttle technology, provides a new CEV and its launch systems, and identifies key technologies required to enable this exploration architecture. The plan includes providing alternative transportation to the ISS, as well as enhanced safety for a crew, a straightforward upgrade path for Mars missions, and higher mission reliability. Following on the ESAS baseline study, NASA has produced a series of increasingly refined cost estimates (which include design, development, test, engineering and production costs) to support budget development for the architecture. NASA will continue to refine the design concepts and requirements that drive the architecture through Systems Requirements Review (SRR) in fall 2006. Analysis will continue until an executable program is baselined in the same timeframe as the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in 2008.

    Recommendation: To better position the agency to determine the best available option for providing logistics support to the space station, the NASA Administrator should, as part of this assessment, (a) determine the development and operation costs associated with these potential alternatives and (b) perform a detailed analysis of these alternatives to determine the best option for delivering the logistics cargo required for space station operations prior to and after space shuttle retirement.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA's Comments: In June 2006, NASA submitted the International Space Station (ISS) Research and Utilization Plan to Congress. This plan describes the scientific investigations, strategic research, commercial opportunities, and technology developments to be accomplished on the ISS. When validated by independent assessment of the National Research Council, pending in FY 2007, this Plan will impact the logistics and resupply requirements for the ISS. Concurrently, NASA is developing two alternatives for ISS transportation services and has a third option in purchasing International space transportation capabilities. Alternative One--Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration (COTS). NASA is supporting the development of a commercial space economy through establishing NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo program and the COTS demonstration. NASA issued a challenge to U.S. industry for the best proposals for Earth-to-orbit space flight demonstrations in any of four crew and cargo delivery requirements for the ISS. COTS will be executed in two phases. On January 18, 2006, NASA released the Space Act Announcement for Phase I of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) project. The scope of the project will involve the demonstration and operation of an end-to-end space transportation system of services including ground operations and integration, launch, rendezvous, proximity operations, docking or berthing, orbital operations, reentry, and safe disposal or return. The demonstrations will culminate with a crew/cargo transportation mission to and from a low-Earth orbit test bed. NASA will pay participants for meeting technical milestones associated with performance, not cost. We expect to announce the proposals selected to receive funded agreements later this summer. We also plan for successful flight demonstrations of the selected capability to occur in the 2008-2010 timeframe. During the demonstration phase, NASA intends to provide assistance similar to an investor to help provide the necessary stimulation to ensure the success of this venture. Once private industry has successfully demonstrated one or more systems, NASA plans to enter the next phase of the Commercial Crew and Cargo program and purchase services from commercial providers, subject to the normal rules of congressional authorization and appropriation. Concurrently, industry will be able to provide these new services to non-NASA customers which will help spread the design, development, and operations costs, thereby reducing the price paid by the government customer. Alternative Two--Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). The Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), chartered in April 2005 to implement the Vision for Space Exploration, laid out a detailed plan to support human and robotic lunar exploration operations. The chosen configuration, patterned on the best of Apollo and Space Shuttle technology, provides a new CEV and its launch systems, and identifies key technologies required to enable this exploration architecture. The plan includes providing alternative transportation to the ISS, as well as enhanced safety for a crew, a straightforward upgrade path for Mars missions, and higher mission reliability. Following on the ESAS baseline study, NASA has produced a series of increasingly refined cost estimates (which include design, development, test, engineering and production costs) to support budget development for the architecture. NASA will continue to refine the design concepts and requirements that drive the architecture through Systems Requirements Review (SRR) in fall 2006. Analysis will continue until an executable program is baselined in the same timeframe as the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in 2008.

    Recommendation: To better position the agency to determine the best available option for providing logistics support to the space station, the NASA Administrator should ensure this assessment is completed before any NASA investments are made for commercial space transportation services to the space station.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

 

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