Constellation Program Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case Is Established

GAO-09-844: Published: Aug 26, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 2009.

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NASA's Constellation program is developing the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle as the agency's first major efforts in a plan to return to the moon and eventually send humans to Mars. GAO has issued a number of reports and testimonies on various aspects of this program, and made several recommendations. GAO was asked to assess NASA's progress in implementing GAO's recommendations for the Ares I and Orion projects, and identify risks the program faces. GAO analyzed NASA plans and schedules, risk mitigation information, and contract performance data relative to knowledge-based acquisition practices identified in prior GAO reports, and interviewed government officials and contractors.

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case--including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time--needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase. Gaps in the business case include significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the mass of the Orion vehicle, represent considerable hurdles that must be overcome in order to meet safety and performance requirements; and a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA's ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of workforce and developmental activities. In response to these gaps, NASA delayed the date of its first crewed-flight and changed its acquisition strategy for the Orion project. NASA acknowledges that funding shortfalls reduce the agency's flexibility in resolving technical challenges. The program's risk management system warned of planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. Consequently, NASA is now focused on providing the capability to service the International Space Station and has deferred the capabilities needed for flights to the moon. Though these changes to the overarching requirements are likely to increase the confidence level associated with a March 2015 first crewed flight, these actions do not guarantee that the program will successfully meet that deadline. Nevertheless, NASA estimates that Ares I and Orion represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the Constellation program through 2020. While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts, at this point NASA does not know how much Ares I and Orion will ultimately cost, and will not know until technical and design challenges have been addressed.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Subsequent to the issuance of our report, the Augustine Commission, a blue ribbon panel of experts chaired by Norm Augustine and stood up by the President to advise him on NASA's manned space program issued a report that mirrored GAO's findings. The Augustine Committee found that Constellation key milestones were slipping, that the program would not return humans back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost, and that far more funding was needed to successfully implement the Constellation program. The President and the NASA Administrator agreed with the findings of the Augustine Commission. NASA's fiscal year 2011 budget request canceled the Constellation program, effectively delaying the program's entry into the implementation phase of development, and laid out NASA's plans for moving forward. These plans, however, have not been well received by the Congress. Congress in the FY2010 Omnibus appropriation Act prohibited NASA from using FY 2010 funding appropriated to terminate the Constellation program. Numerous compromise proposals have been advocated by interested parties within and outside NASA and the Congress. Deliberations on NASA's future plans for manned spaceflight are likely to continue into calendar year 2011 when NASA submits its fiscal year 2012 budget request.

    Recommendation: The new NASA Administrator should direct the Constellation program, or its successor, 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 into implementation, and, if necessary, delay the preliminary design review until a sound business case demonstrating the program's readiness to move forward into implementation is in hand.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration


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