National Aero-Space Plane:

Restructuring Future Research and Development Efforts

NSIAD-93-71: Published: Dec 3, 1992. Publicly Released: Dec 3, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) program's costs, schedule, status, feasibility, and justification, focusing on NASP: (1) technology development status; (2) project cost and schedule changes; (3) requirements for and the potential mission applications of future operational NASP-derived vehicles and efforts to spin off technology; and (4) issues to be decided in reassessing the program's direction.

GAO found that: (1) NASP technological challenges and high risks have forced the program to be redirected toward research and technology development; (2) the NASP program has experienced technical problems, schedule delays, cost overruns, and a decreasing budget; (3) the decision to build the X-30 experimental flight test vehicle depends upon the resolution of technical problems concerning weight, complexity, and low speed engine thrust capacity requirements; (4) the Phase II NASP development is nearly 5 years behind schedule and 25 percent of the program's Phase II tests are incomplete due to budgetary constraints, schedule delays, and technical problems; (5) preliminary contractor estimates for building and testing two single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) capable X-30 vehicles totalled about $17 billion and nearly five times the original $3.1-billion projected cost; (6) the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) were considering such fundamental NASP program options as extending the program schedule, refocusing NASP objectives toward propulsion system research and development, indefinitely deferring the program, or eliminating the X-30 vehicle and focusing on an unmanned subscale vehicle; (7) because of uncertain program objectives and time frames, NASA and DOD need to provide a cost/benefit justification to compete for limited budget funds; (8) NASP program justifications and benefits included more flexible and less costly access to space and a near-term potential for intra-agency technology transfer; and (9) DOD and NASA based future economic benefits and technological projections on overly optimistic assumptions.

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

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Issues to be decided in reassessing the direction of the NASP Program include: (1) whether the United States should pursue research and technology development efforts with the ultimate goal of developing an air-breathing, SSTO vehicle or hypersonic cruise vehicle; (2) what priority and funding should be assigned to this effort relative to other DOD and NASA programs; and (3) whether these efforts should be continued through the NASP Program, and if so, the appropriate management and technical structure.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress determined that the NASP Progam is unaffordable due to severe budget constraints faced by all domestic discretionary programs. Neither DOD nor NASA requested NASP funding for fiscal year 1995 and the program will be closed out by the end of calendar year 1994. Funds were requested in 1995 for hypersonic flight technology, a newly created program element representing remaining NASP efforts. Evolving report language suggests that Congress remains concerned about the affordability of the new hypersonic technology program and the continued use of a consortia of aerospace contractors to manage the new program. Requested funding for the new program was reduced. DOD and NASA continue to struggle to define a technology program affordable in the current budget environment.

    Matter: If the SSTO goals are judged to be a worthwhile investment, Congress should consider ways to ensure that the program remains properly focused and optimized for developing critical technologies. Options that could be considered include: (1) refocusing the program on efforts to develop key technologies (analogous to the current Phase II) and deferring the definition of future phases until the technical results are assessed; (2) defining and implementing a research and development program with milestones based on successfully achieving technological goals rather than meeting a predetermined cost and schedule (that is, a technology-driven rather than cost- or schedule-driven program) and with realistic, attainable annual funding goals; and (3) reassessing the current NASP Program management structure--the NASP Joint Program Office and National Contractor Team--to determine if it is cost-effective and compatible with restructured program objectives and goals, available funding, and current technology development.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Neither DOD nor NASA requested funds in fiscal year 1995 for the NASP Program. According to the NASA program manager, remaining tasks to be accomplished as a part of this program will be completed by the end of calendar year 1994.

    Matter: Congress, in conjunction with the administration, should reassess the direction of the NASP Program and determine whether the goals of SSTO and sustained hypersonic cruise are worth pursuing on their own merits.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Both Congress and the administration concluded that the NASP Program was unaffordable. While a less ambitious program has been undertaken by the same management team, the new program is also considered unaffordable, and is likely to be further downsized.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In restructuring the program, the Secretary of Defense and the Administrator, NASA, should direct the NASP Steering Group to provide guidance and direction to the NASP Joint Program Office regarding: (1) program objectives and technical goals for aerospace research, development, and testing efforts to be conducted through the NASP Program; (2) funding availability; (3) technical priorities; and (4) development of a program strategy that is technology- or event-driven that can be implemented within available funding.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Since the NASP Program was terminated, there is no longer a NASP Steering Group or NASP Joint Program Office.

    Recommendation: In restructuring the program, the Secretary of Defense and the Administrator, NASA, should direct the NASP Steering Group to provide guidance and direction to the NASP Joint Program Office regarding: (1) program objectives and technical goals for aerospace research, development, and testing efforts to be conducted through the NASP Program; (2) funding availability; (3) technical priorities; and (4) development of a program strategy that is technology- or event-driven that can be implemented within available funding.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Since the NASP Program was terminated, there is no longer a NASP Steering Group or NASP Joint Program Office.

    Recommendation: Since technological development efforts to date do not provide a sufficient basis to proceed with the scheduled September 1993 decision to build and test the X-30 experimental vehicle, the Secretary of Defense and the Administrator, NASA, should direct the NASP Steering Group to delay a decision to build and test the X-30 experimental vehicle until critical technologies are developed and demonstrated and decisions on program restructuring are made.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The NASP Program has been terminated and there is no longer any plan to build and test an experimental single stage to orbit vehicle.

    Recommendation: Since technological development efforts to date do not provide a sufficient basis to proceed with the scheduled September 1993 decision to build and test the X-30 experimental vehicle, the Secretary of Defense and the Administrator, NASA, should direct the NASP Steering Group to delay a decision to build and test the X-30 experimental vehicle until critical technologies are developed and demonstrated and decisions on program restructuring are made.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The NASP Program has been terminated and there is no longer any plan to build and test an experimental single stage to orbit vehicle.

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