Space Transportation:

Progress of the X-33 Reusable Launch Vehicle Program

T-NSIAD-99-243: Published: Sep 29, 1999. Publicly Released: Sep 29, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the status of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) X-33 Reusable Launch Vehicle Program, focusing on: (1) whether the X-33 Program is meeting its original cost, schedule, and performance objectives; (2) how NASA conducts oversight under the cooperative agreement; and (3) issues NASA may face if it decides to use Lockheed Martin's VentureStar to service the International Space Station.

GAO noted that: (1) because of problems in developing technologies for the X-33, the program will not meet some of its original cost, schedule, and performance objectives, (2) costs have increased, the test vehicle's first flight was delayed by 16 months, and some performance objectives--such as a speed reduction from Mach 15 to Mach 13.8--were reduced; (3) when the cooperative agreement was established in July 1996, Lockheed Martin and industry partners' contributions totalled $211.6 million; NASA's contribution was fixed at $912.4 million; (4) GAO estimated that between July 1996 and March 1999, contractors' total contributions increased by $75 million, to $286.6 million in response to problems encountered during development; (5) estimated government costs for NASA civil service personnel working on the program also increased, from $95.2 million to $113.1 million; (6) these costs for NASA personnel are not included in the agency's agreement contribution; they are paid out of another budget account; (7) because the agreement permits NASA employees to work side by side with Lockheed Martin employees to perform various technical tasks, NASA's oversight of the program is based on real-time and detailed insights from its personnel; (8) with information from its employees, NASA's X-33 program office monitors and verifies the program's progress and pays the contractor when it meets milestones; (9) several issues will need to be addressed before NASA can decide whether to use VentureStar reusable launch vehicles to support the International Space Station; (10) the results of the X-33 Program must provide sufficient information for NASA to determine that risks have been adequately reduced and that continuation of activities leading to the agency's use of VentureStar is warranted; (11) even though VentureStar reusable launch vehicles are intended to be commercially owned and operated, government financial incentives may be needed to initiate such a venture; (12) the amount NASA would have to pay in additional development and production costs to enable VentureStar to carry people would need to be determined; (13) the need for and effect of additional flights would need to be considered; (14) because VentureStar would not carry as much cargo as the space shuttle, more frequent dockings are likely; (15) the design and management of the X-33 Program agreement reflect the intent of the National Space Transportation Policy; and (16) however, the extent that the program will achieve a cost reduction envisioned by that policy is unclear at this time.

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