Skip to Highlights
Highlights

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has long relied on the Delta II medium class launch vehicle to launch science missions. Delta II, however, is no longer in production, and no other vehicle in the relative cost and performance range is currently certified for NASA use. Thus, NASA faces a potential gap in the availability of medium class launch vehicles that could cause design challenges, delays, or funding issues. GAO was asked to assess (1) NASA's and the Delta II contractor's, steps to ensure resources (budget, workforce, and facilities) are available to support safe Delta II operations through the last planned NASA flight in 2011; (2) NASA's plans and contingencies for ensuring a smooth transition from current small and medium class launch vehicles to other launch vehicles for future science missions; (3) the risks associated with NASA's planned approach to fill the medium launch capability gap; and (4) technical and programmatic implications to science missions if NASA commits to new launch vehicles before they are certified and proven. GAO identified and assessed transition plans and mitigation activities and interviewed responsible NASA and government officials.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Given the likelihood of delays and additional costs associated with developing and fielding a medium class launch vehicle fully certified for science missions and the implications to funding available to support science missions, and as LSP gains a more complete understanding of the detailed designs and actual performance of the Falcon 9 and Taurus II, the NASA Administrator should require NASA's Science Mission Directorate--in conjunction with NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate--to perform a detailed cost estimate to determine the likely costs of certification and the trade-offs required to fund these costs. This estimate should at a minimum examine the need for funds to resolve technical issues with the Falcon 9 and Taurus II launch vehicles discovered through the certification process. The estimate should also examine the costs associated with delaying science missions if necessary until launch vehicles are available or contingencies such as selecting more costly or time-consuming launch options.
Closed - Not Implemented
In providing comments on this report and in its letter to the Congress, the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) concurred with this recommendation and indicated that it planned to develop a detailed estimate of the costs to certify new medium-class launch vehicles. Subsequent to this notification, the NASA's Launch Services Program informed us and clarified for SMD that the terms of the NASA Launch Services (NLS) contract do not allow the commercial launch service contractor to directly or separately bill NASA for discrete certification activity. According to NASA, the terms of the NLS contract make clear to providers that they are to provide a Firm Fixed Price for any launch service that is inclusive of all activity, including certification actions if the launch vehicle being offered has not yet been certified by NASA. This recommendation is closed as not implemented because NASA officials told us that given the procurement sensitive nature of this topic and the terms included in the NLS contract, it does not plan to prepare detailed estimates of the costs to certify new medium-class launch vehicles.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Given that NASA's Science Mission Directorate could have to fund additional significant costs for certification and the use of contingencies, the NASA Administrator should require that the costs identified through developing the detail cost estimate are adequately budgeted for and identified by the Science Mission Directorate.
Closed - Not Implemented
In providing comments on this report and in its letter to the Congress, the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) concurred with this recommendation and indicated that it planned to budget based on detailed cost estimates for certifying new medium launch capability vehicles as part of its fiscal year 2013 and subsequent budget cycles. Subsequent to this notification, the NASA's Launch Services Program informed us and clarified for SMD that the terms of the NASA Launch Services (NLS) contract does not allow the commercial launch service contractor to directly or separately bill NASA for discrete certification activity. According to NASA, the terms of the NLS contract make clear to providers that they are to provide a Firm Fixed Price for any launch service that is inclusive of all activity, including certification actions if the launch vehicle being offered has not yet been certified by NASA. . This recommendation is closed as not implemented because NASA officials told us that given the procurement sensitive nature of this topic and the terms included in the NLS contract, it does not plan to prepare detailed estimates of the costs to certify new medium-class launch vehicles.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Until such time, however, that costs are better understood, the NASA Administrator should require the Science Mission Directorate to identify and budget for additional contingency funding for the projects requiring a medium launch capability vehicle and approaching their preliminary design review prior to certification of Falcon 9 and Taurus II that could be impacted by additional costs associated with certification of these vehicles, including the need to address technical issues and shoulder delays in the certification process.
Closed - Implemented
In providing comments on this report and in its letter to the Congress, the agency concurred with this recommendation and indicated that NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) was preparing an estimate of the costs to certify a new medium class launch vehicle and providing these costs to the Science Mission Directorate. Subsequently, NASA's Science Mission Directorate factored these costs in the preparation of its fiscal year 2014 budget request for some of it science projects that could likely use either the Falcon 9 or Antares vehicles, which the agency believes is sufficient to cover any costs associated with their certification. For example, NASA included over $10 million margin in the budget for the Insight mission specifically for certification related costs.

Full Report