Long-Term Commitment to and Investment in Space Exploration Program Requires More Knowledge

GAO-06-817R: Published: Jul 17, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2006.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to spend nearly $230 billion over the next two decades implementing the Vision for Space Exploration. In January 2006, NASA publicly released its Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), which is an effort to identify the best architecture and strategy to implement the President's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (Vision). The cost estimate for implementing the ESAS through fiscal year 2011 exceeds $31 billion. The estimate through fiscal year 2018 is over $122 billion, and the estimate through fiscal year 2025 is nearly $230 billion. These estimates include the architecture, robotic precursor missions, supporting technologies, and funding needed to service the International Space Station (ISS). NASA plans to implement this architecture through a "go as you can afford to pay" approach, wherein lower-priority efforts would be deferred, descoped, or discontinued to allow NASA to stay within its available budget profile. This approach assumes NASA's budget will increase moderately to keep pace with inflation. Given the long-term fiscal imbalances that will challenge the entire federal government now and in the future, it would be prudent for NASA to establish a program that reduces the risk that significant additional funding, beyond moderate increases for inflation, will be required to execute the program. Government leaders will have to make difficult decisions to resolve such challenges, and the debate over the potential cost and the federal government's role in implementing the Vision are emblematic of the challenges the nation will need to resolve in the years ahead. Because of the significance of this investment, competing demands on the federal discretionary budget, and the importance of the success of NASA's exploration program to the future of U.S. human spaceflight, Congress requested that GAO assess (1) the extent to which NASA has identified the architecture and costs necessary to implement the Vision, (2) whether NASA's exploration architecture cost estimates fit within the agency's projected available budgets, and (3) the risks associated with NASA's acquisition strategy for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) project.

Although NASA is continuing to refine its exploration architecture cost estimates, the agency cannot at this time provide a firm estimate of what it will take to implement the architecture. The absence of firm cost estimates is mainly due to the fact that the program is in the early stages of its life cycle. NASA will be challenged to implement the architecture recommended in the study within its projected budget. Whether using the architecture study estimates of funds available or NASA's Fiscal Year 2007 Budget Submission for ESMD that was based on the architecture study cost estimates, there are years when NASA does not have sufficient funding to implement the architecture. NASA's current acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk of significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls because it commits the government to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case.

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

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Based on its response to GAO's report, it appears that NASA plans to proceed with its acquisition strategy for the CEV and award a long-term contract for the project, although it continues to lack sufficient knowledge and a sound business case for doing so. Congress is currently being asked to approve NASA's fiscal year 2007 funding request and will be asked to approve fiscal year 2008 and perhaps the fiscal year 2009 funding requests for the CEV project before NASA has demonstrated such knowledge and has provided evidence, based on that knowledge, that the project will be executable within existing and expected resources. In light of the fact that NASA plans to award the contract for the CEV in September 2006, Congress may want to consider restricting annual appropriations and limiting NASA's obligations for the CEV project to only the amount of funding necessary to support activities needed to successfully complete the project's preliminary design review.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress did not act on the Matter for Consideration to restrict funding for the CEV.

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: Because of the importance of the CEV project to NASA's overall implementation of the Vision, NASA should focus on ensuring that its acquisition approach for the CEV project does not place the government at risk by committing to a long-term design and development effort without the knowledge needed to make wise investment decisions. The NASA Administrator should modify the current CEV acquisition strategy to ensure that the agency does not commit itself, and in turn the federal government, to a long-term contractual obligation prior to demonstrating, through the establishment of a sound business case at the project's preliminary design review, that the project is affordable and executable.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Because of the importance of the CEV project to NASA's overall implementation of the Vision, we recommended that NASA focus on ensuring that its acquisition approach for the CEV project does not place the government at risk by committing to a long-term design and development effort without the knowledge needed to make wise investment decisions. As a result of our recommendation, NASA adjusted its acquisition approach prior to contract award in August of 2006. Specifically, the agency included the production and sustainment portions of the contract as option--a move that lessened the government's financial obligation at this early stage. Our analysis helped to avoid potential unnecessary costs to the government of $4.25 billion.

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