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.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|