Committee Warns NASA To Keep CEV on Track

Members of the House Science Committee sought assurances from NASASept. 28 that the agency is taking sufficient steps to keep the Orion CrewExploration Vehicle from busting its budget and schedule as so many other largeagency programs have in recent years.

"NASA has to move ahead with Orion deliberately, but also cautiously,and Congress has to keep a keen and constant eye on the project," House ScienceCommittee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said during the Sept. 28 hearing."Neither the agency nor the nation can afford another space station--a projectthat, for all its technical magnificence, has seen its costs balloon while itscapabilities shrank to near the vanishing point."

Boehlert said he was glad to see that NASA had modified its approachon the Orion contract in response to the criticism of that approach in a U.S.Government Accountability Office report released July 17.

The 22-page report, actually a memo with the subject line "NASA:Long-Term Commitment to and Investment in Space Exploration Program RequiresMore Knowledge," criticized the agency for locking itself into a long-termcontract to design, develop and manufacture Orion before establishing detaileddesign requirements and firm cost estimates. The report said that byprematurely committing to a long-term development effort, NASA's acquisitionstrategy puts the program at risk of serious cost overruns.

"[W]e found that NASA's acquisition strategy for the CEV was notbased upon obtaining an adequate level of knowledge when making key resourcesdecisions, placing the program at risk for cost overruns, schedule delays, andperformance shortfalls," Allen Li, the GAO's director of acquisition andsourcing management, said during the hearing. "These risks were evident inNASA's plan to commit to a long-term product development effort beforeestablishing a sound business case for the project that includes well-definedrequirements, mature technology, a preliminary design, and firm costestimates."

Boehlert convened the hearing specifically to hear how NASA wasresponding to the GAO's concerns. The hearing likely was Boehlert's lastdealing with NASA. The 70-year-old congressman is retiring at the end of thelegislative session.

Scott Horowitz, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems,said during the hearing he disagreed with the GAO's findings. However, Horowitzsaid NASA made some of the changes recommended by the GAO prior to awarding theOrion prime contract Sept. 1 to Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

"Based on our discussions [with the GAO] we have made somemodifications to our contract with Lockheed Martin, the most notable being ofoptions which preserve NASA capabilities in case of any unforeseen trouble," hesaid. The contract is structured around an initial five-year design, development,test and evaluation performance period worth $3.9 billion. Options foradditional development work, sustaining engineering and vehicle productioncould make the contract worth approximately $8.1 billion through 2019.

Li said breaking the Orion prime contract into three phases--makingproduction and engineering sustainment separate options--was "a step in theright direction" but only partially addressed the GAO's concerns. "NASA stillhas no assurance that the project will have a sound business case in place atpreliminary design review, therefore commitment to efforts beyond that pointeven when limited to design and development activities is a risk approach," Lisaid.

Horowitz said NASA has a sound understanding of what it is gettinginto with Orion, having spent $140 million on Orion formulation activitiesprior to awarding the prime contract.

"The Constellation program, our NASA Smart Buyer Team, LockheedMartin and Northrop Grumman-Boeing team all completed initial designs based onour requirements," Horowitz said. "If you were to place a model of each ofthese designs on the table, except for the shape of the solar arrays, youcouldn't tell the difference. The largest change we've made in a year to thevehicle is we shrunk it from 5.5 meters to 5 meters ... we know what we need todo. It's time to execute."

Lockheed Martin proposed building distinctive round solar arrays forOrion.

"The most important factor that will reduce the total cost forproduction and operations of Orion is its simplicity," Horowitz said. "The Ares1 launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft are far simpler designs than the spaceshuttle and thus we will need fewer engineers to design, develop, test andoperate. There are no exotic technologies or revolutionary designs required toaccomplish our mission."

Li said now that the Orion prime contract has been awarded, it iscritical for NASA to follow sound program management practices and for Congressto maintain vigorous oversight over not just Orion but the other elements ofConstellation still to be awarded.

"Orion is only one piece of the pie," Li said.

Among the tools Congress has at its disposal, Li said, areNunn-McCurdy-type cost controls included in the 2005 NASA Authorization Actrequiring congressional action when NASA reports project cost overrunsexceeding set levels.

Horowitz said NASA would do its part keeping Orion on budget and onschedule while maintaining an open line of communication with Congress aboutthe project's progress.

"What can we do to avoid cost overruns?" Horowitz asked. "A daydoesn't go by that I don't say this to my staff. This is all about performance,cost and schedule."

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Science space andaeronautics subcommittee, defended NASA's acquisition strategy. He also said hewas concerned that some of the GAO's recommendations would delay development ofthe CEV, putting at risk the 2014 deadline Congress set last year for fieldingthe new system.

"I believe NASA has a more advanced state of knowledge than theagency has had for many of their earlier procurements," Calvert said. "Inaddition, the NASA acquisition strategy for the Vision [for Space Exploration]is more flexible and has built in incentives, options and provisions fortermination if necessary. The aim is to improve contractor performance."

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the ranking Democrat on the House ScienceCommittee, said he wanted to see Orion succeed, but highlighted the GAO'sfinding that NASA's exploration projects face multi-billion dollar fundingshortfalls between 2014 and 2020. "We may be seeing another example of loftygoals being set without those proposing them identifying where the resourcesneeded to achieve those goals will be coming from," Gordon said. "That's simplynot smart planning or responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars."

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.