Last-minuteobjections from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) are notexpected to derail NASA's long-awaited selection of a Crew Exploration Vehicle(CEV) prime contractor.
In itsreport, "NASA: Long-Term Commitment to and Investment in Space ExplorationProgram Requires More Knowledge," the GAO says NASA's acquisition strategy forthe CEV program needs to be overhauled and it urges the U.S. space agency tohold off on signing a long-term contract for the proposed space shuttlereplacement until 2008, the year NASA officials expect to commit to apreliminary design for the CEV and have a better idea of what it will cost tobuild.
NASA,however, says it will be ready by September to conclude a deal for the design,development and eventual production of the CEV and fully intends to do so.
"We do notconcur with GAO's recommendation that the NASA administrator modify the CEV acquisitionstrategy," NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said July 27. "The agency's businessapproach is consistent with the GAO's recommendation and NASA is confident thatits acquisition strategy and plans for selecting a CEV prime contractor arebased on a sound business case and are in the government's best interest."
NASAoriginally intended to keep two teams competing for the CEV prime contractthrough 2008 and make a final selection based on the results of a prototypeflyoff. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, after taking office last year,scrapped the flyoff idea as unaffordable, and moved up the CEV prime contractorselection well ahead of a preliminary design review currently slated for March2008.
Thepreliminary design review is a major program milestone intended to provide NASAits first refined cost estimate before the detailed design work begins. Keepingtwo teams under contract through the preliminary design review, NASA estimates,would cost the agency an additional $2 billion.
GovernmentAccountability Office auditors worry that NASA is asking for trouble byentering into a contract that would run at least through 2014 - and possiblythrough 2019 - before developing "key elements of a sound business case,including well-defined requirements, a preliminary design, mature technology,and firm cost estimates."
"NASA'scurrent acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk ofsignificant cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls becauseit commits the government to a long-term product development effort before establishinga sound business case," the Government Accountability Office wrote in a 22-pagereport released July 26.
Noting thatNASA intends to award a full CEV contract in September despite these warnings,the report urges Congress to "consider restricting annual appropriations andlimiting NASA's obligations for the CEV project to only the amount of fundingnecessary to support activities needed to successfully complete the project'spreliminary design review."
The GAO reportwas requested by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.)and his Democratic counterpart Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.).
"GAO hasprovided an important early-warning signal that all may not be well with NASA'sapproach to implementing the exploration initiative," Gordon said in astatement. "I think Congress needs to take a serious look at the issues GAOraises. We have seen too many examples in recent years of governmentprograms that deviated significantly from their original cost, schedule, andperformance goals to ignore GAO's concerns."
Boehlertsaid in a statement issued July 26 that he shared the GAO's concerns "about theneed to obtain full information before entering into long-term commitments" andplans to hold a hearing this autumn on the issues raised in the report.However, Boehlert gave no indication he intended to stand in the way of NASAmaking a CEV contract award this summer, noting in the statement that he is"eager to see NASA continue planning and designing the CEV."
In additionto challenging NASA's CEV acquisition plans, the report also questions whetherNASA can really afford to return to the Moon by 2020 via the path it laid outlast year.