Agency Has Taken Steps Toward Making Sound Investment Decisions for Ares I but Still Faces Challenging Knowledge Gaps

GAO-08-51: Published: Oct 31, 2007. Publicly Released: Nov 29, 2007.

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One of the first steps in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) efforts to implement the President's plan to return humans to the moon and prepare for eventual human space flight to Mars is the development of the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle. In 2005, NASA outlined a framework for implementing the President's plan and has awarded contracts for Ares I and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle it is designed to send into space. It plans to conduct the first human space flight in 2015. However, the agency is seeking to speed development efforts in order to reduce the gap in our nation's ability to provide human access to space caused by the Space Shuttle's retirement in 2010. GAO was asked to assess NASA's progress in developing the knowledge needed to make sound investment decisions for the Ares I project. GAO's work included analyzing Ares I plans, contracts, schedules, and risk assessments.

NASA has been taking steps to build a business case--demonstrating the project is achievable within the constraints of time and money and other resources NASA has available--for Ares I. This has included relying on established technology and adopting an acquisition strategy that emphasizes attaining knowledge on cost, schedule, and technical and development feasibility before commitments are made to long-terms investments. The project also acknowledges that many risks are present and is undertaking an array of activities to track and mitigate those risks. However, NASA has not yet developed the knowledge needed to make sound investment decisions for the Ares I project. Principally, there are gaps in knowledge about requirements, costs, schedule, technology, design, and production feasibility. Our work shows that successful program execution is dependent on having these elements in place at the time long-term investment commitments are made. While NASA still has 10 months under its own schedule to close gaps in knowledge about requirements, technologies, costs, and time and other elements needed to develop the Ares I system, the gaps we identified are fairly significant and challenging given the complexity and interdependencies in the program. For example, continued instability in the design of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle is hampering the Ares I project's efforts to establish firm requirements, the aggressive J-2X upper stage engine development schedule is not synchronized with the rest of the project, and it is unclear if NASA has allocated sufficient funding to the project.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA delayed the Ares I Preliminary Design Review (PDR) from July 2008 until September 2008 to allow more time to gain additional knowledge about the system's design before moving forward in development. Further, at the July 8, 2009 exit conference for engagement code 120795--NASA's Constellation Program--NASA informed GAO that although the PDR for Ares I was completed in September 2008, resolution of some technical issues, including thrust oscillation and vibroacoustics, had been deferred until the program level PDR scheduled for March 2010 to allow the agency to gain a better understanding of technical issues and proposed solutions prior to entering implementation. During May 2010 meetings, Constellation program officials indicated that NASA completed the Constellation program PDR in March 2010. Based on NASA's actions, slipping the Ares I PDR and deferring resolution of technical issues thereby delaying entry in to implementation until increased knowledge was in hand, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: The NASA Administrator should direct the Ares I project manager to develop a sound business case--supported by firm requirements, mature technologies, a preliminary design, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time--before proceeding beyond preliminary design review (currently planned for July 2008) and, if necessary, delay the preliminary design review until a sound business case demonstrating the project's readiness to move forward into product development is in hand.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration


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