NASA:

Medium Launch Transition Strategy Leverages Ongoing Investments but Is Not Without Risk

GAO-11-107: Published: Nov 22, 2010. Publicly Released: Nov 22, 2010.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Cristina T. Chaplain
(202) 512-3000
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has long relied on the Delta II medium class launch vehicle to launch science missions. Delta II, however, is no longer in production, and no other vehicle in the relative cost and performance range is currently certified for NASA use. Thus, NASA faces a potential gap in the availability of medium class launch vehicles that could cause design challenges, delays, or funding issues. GAO was asked to assess (1) NASA's and the Delta II contractor's, steps to ensure resources (budget, workforce, and facilities) are available to support safe Delta II operations through the last planned NASA flight in 2011; (2) NASA's plans and contingencies for ensuring a smooth transition from current small and medium class launch vehicles to other launch vehicles for future science missions; (3) the risks associated with NASA's planned approach to fill the medium launch capability gap; and (4) technical and programmatic implications to science missions if NASA commits to new launch vehicles before they are certified and proven. GAO identified and assessed transition plans and mitigation activities and interviewed responsible NASA and government officials.

NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) is taking steps to address risks and ensure the success of the last planned Delta II launched missions through a combination of specific government approvals and targeted government insight into contractor activities and designs. For example, LSP uses government systems engineers with technical expertise to review or repeat the contractors' engineering analyses. This is a key factor in high launch success rates. From 1990 through 2009, LSP has achieved a 98 percent launch success rate. LSP is conducting additional reviews of launch vehicle processing to mitigate risk associated with the remaining Delta II flights. LSP has also identified several specific areas of concern with the remaining Delta II flights--including contractor workforce expertise, postproduction subcontractor support, spare parts, and launch pads--and is taking steps where possible to mitigate risks and ensure the success of the remaining missions. NASA plans to leverage ongoing investments to acquire a new medium launch capability for science missions in the relative cost and performance range of the Delta II. The agency expects to eventually certify the vehicles being developed for space station resupply for use by NASA science missions. NASA has been in coordination with agency and contractor officials responsible for these efforts. Further, the agency revised its policy to allow for faster certification of new providers. Due to an active small class launch vehicle market and NASA's relative low need for vehicles in this class, the agency has no plans to develop additional small class launch vehicles. Rather, the agency will acquire these services through the NASA Launch Services II Contract. NASA's plan has inherent risks that need to be mitigated. NASA has not developed detailed estimates of the time and money required to resolve technical issues likely to arise during the launch vehicle certification process. 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. NASA medium class science missions that are approaching their preliminary design review face uncertainties related to committing to as yet uncertified and unproven launch vehicles. Launch vehicle decisions for these missions will be made before new vehicles are certified. Because changing the launch vehicle of a science mission after its preliminary design review is likely to lead to significant cost growth and schedule delays, NASA's intention is to select a launch vehicle and accept the impacts that any delays in the certification process could have to the cost and schedule of the science mission. NASA officials also indicated that future science missions might be asked to accommodate multiple launch vehicle possibilities if the availability of future vehicles is delayed. GAO recommends that NASA perform a detailed cost estimate based on knowledge gained during launch vehicle certification and adequately budget for potential additional costs. NASA concurred.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: Given the likelihood of delays and additional costs associated with developing and fielding a medium class launch vehicle fully certified for science missions and the implications to funding available to support science missions, and as LSP gains a more complete understanding of the detailed designs and actual performance of the Falcon 9 and Taurus II, the NASA Administrator should require NASA's Science Mission Directorate--in conjunction with NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate--to perform a detailed cost estimate to determine the likely costs of certification and the trade-offs required to fund these costs. This estimate should at a minimum examine the need for funds to resolve technical issues with the Falcon 9 and Taurus II launch vehicles discovered through the certification process. The estimate should also examine the costs associated with delaying science missions if necessary until launch vehicles are available or contingencies such as selecting more costly or time-consuming launch options.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: In providing comments on this report and in its letter to the Congress, the agency concurred with this recommendation and indicated that it planned to develop a detailed estimate of the costs to certify new medium-class launch vehicles in support of its fiscal year 2013 budget cycle and subsequent budget cycles if necessary. NASA has developed preliminary estimates of the costs associated with certifying and resolving potential technical issues with the Falcon 9 and Antares (formerly known as Taurus II) vehicles. The final costs of certification, however, are dependent on a number of variable factors including government labor costs and the potential government expenditure for any additional testing or other actions the government deems necessary. Until NASA has finalized its certification requirements and awarded a contract for launch services for a NASA-funded science mission, certification cost estimates will remain preliminary in nature, and this recommendation will remain open.

    Recommendation: Given that NASA's Science Mission Directorate could have to fund additional significant costs for certification and the use of contingencies, the NASA Administrator should require that the costs identified through developing the detail cost estimate are adequately budgeted for and identified by the Science Mission Directorate.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: In providing comments on this report and in its letter to the Congress, the agency concurred with this recommendation and indicated that it planned to budget based on detailed cost estimates for certifying new medium launch capability vehicles as part of its fiscal year 2013 and subsequent budget cycles. Since then, NASA has developed preliminary estimates of the costs associated with resolving potential technical issues with the Falcon 9 and Antares (formerly known as Taurus II) vehicles. At this time, however, it is NASA's position that until a contract is awarded for a NASA-funded science mission, the extent to which the Science Mission Directorate will bear any certification costs will remain unknown. While NASA has selected the Falcon 9 launch vehicle for the Jason-3 mission, this mission is unique in that NASA is acting, on a reimbursable basis, as NOAA's acquisition agent to develop and launch the spacecraft. As such, NASA does not have a dedicated budget for the mission. It is NASA's intent to assign the certification costs to a specific mission, but this will only be done when a NASA-funded mission is identified for flight on a new medium launch vehicle. This recommendation will remain open until NASA has awarded a contract for a NASA-funded science mission and all potential costs are recognized in NASA's budget documentation.

    Recommendation: Until such time, however, that costs are better understood, the NASA Administrator should require the Science Mission Directorate to identify and budget for additional contingency funding for the projects requiring a medium launch capability vehicle and approaching their preliminary design review prior to certification of Falcon 9 and Taurus II that could be impacted by additional costs associated with certification of these vehicles, including the need to address technical issues and shoulder delays in the certification process.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: In providing comments on this report and in its letter to the Congress, the agency concurred with this recommendation and indicated that as part of the process for developing the fiscal year 2012 President's Budget, NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) prepared a preliminary estimate of the costs to certify a new medium class launch vehicle and provided these costs to the Science Mission Directorate. According to NASA, the Science Mission Directorate factored these costs in the preparation of its fiscal year 2013 budget and plans to apply funds from within the total Science budget once a science mission has been identified for flight on a new medium class launch vehicle. At this time, however, it is NASA's position that until a NASA-funded mission is identified for flight on a new medium class launch, the extent to which the Science Mission Directorate will bear any certification costs will remain unknown. This recommendation will remain open until NASA has awarded a contract for a NASA-funded science mission and all potential costs are recognized in NASA's budget documentation.

    Jul 30, 2014

    Jul 23, 2014

    Jul 16, 2014

    Jun 20, 2014

    May 15, 2014

    May 8, 2014

    Apr 15, 2014

    Mar 12, 2014

    Feb 4, 2014

    Jan 13, 2014

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here