Space Transportation:

Challenges Facing NASA's Space Launch Initiative

GAO-02-1020: Published: Sep 17, 2002. Publicly Released: Oct 2, 2002.

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In 2001, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began undertaking a new effort--the Space Launch Initiative (SLI)--to develop a new generation of space transportation vehicles. SLI is expected to result in development of the second generation of reusable launch vehicles, the space shuttle being the first generation. NASA plans to define basic requirements for its second-generation reusable launch vehicle--that is, what the crew size will be, what the payload capacity will be, and what designs or architectures are worth pursuing--by November 2002. However, considerable challenges must be addressed before NASA can accomplish this. First, NASA has to complete a reassessment of its overall space transportation plans. Second, NASA is currently reassessing the future of the International Space Station. The decisions it will make as part of this evaluation, such as how many crew will operate the station, will have a dramatic impact on NASA's requirements for a second-generation vehicle. Third, NASA needs to decide whether the SLI program will be developed jointly with the Department of Defense (DOD) and, if so, how can it accommodate DOD's requirements for a reusable launch vehicle. Until NASA finalizes its basic requirements for SLI, it cannot implement management controls that are essential to predicting what the total costs of the program will be and to minimizing the risks with NASA's planned initial investment of $4.8 billion. It is important for NASA to implement management controls for SLI as soon as possible, so that it can provide its managers and Congress with the information needed to ensure that the program is on track and able to meet expectations.

Status Legend:

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  • 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: The Administrator of NASA should, after system requirements are defined, ensure that performance measures are developed to assess the progress of the program, as a whole, toward (1) meeting key performance objectives, including lowering the cost of delivering payloads to low-Earth orbit to less than $1,000 per round and reducing the risk of crew loss to approximately one in 10,000 missions, and (2) achieving an overall technology readiness level of six by 2006.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is no longer relevant, given that the SLI program budget was amended and the funds applied to other NASA activities.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should ensure that NASA can demonstrate how the $4.8 billion initial investment supports the requirements that NASA decides to pursue in November 2002.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is no longer relevant, given that the SLI program budget was amended and the funds applied to other NASA activities.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should, after NASA completes its system requirements review, ensure that a cost estimate is promptly developed for the SLI investment and that this estimate is detailed and reliable enough to be used to complete risk mitigation plans and carry out earned value management activities.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is no longer relevant, given that the SLI program budget was amended and the funds applied to other NASA activities.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should, if DOD is to jointly develop the second-generation vehicle, reach consensus with DOD on priorities and objectives for SLI and factor DOD's requirements into NASA's own.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is no longer relevant, given that the SLI program budget was amended and the funds applied to other NASA activities.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should reassess the schedule for defining the requirements for SLI in order to ensure that the agency takes the following actions before making final decisions on basic requirements and selecting three architectures to pursue: (1) complete the reassessment of NASA's integrated space transportation plan, (2) reach consensus with its international partners on the future of the space station, and (3) reach consensus with the Department of Defense on its role in SLI effort.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 1992, NASA postponed its Systems Requirements Review for SLI so that it could focus on defining DOD's role, determine the future requirements for the space station, and firm up the agency's future space transportation requirements. In November 2002, the administration submitted to Congress an amendment to NASA's fiscal year 2003 budget request, to implement a new Integrated Space Transportation Plan. The new plan extends the space shuttle's operational life and refocuses the program on an orbital space plane, effectively terminating the SLI program that was the subject of the GAO report.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should ensure that measures are developed to assess the amount of risk reduced following each year of expenditure and the amount of risk remaining.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is no longer relevant, given that the SLI program budget was amended and the funds applied to other NASA activities.

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