NASA OIG: Final Memorandum on the Review of NASA's Plan to Build the A-3 Facility for Rocket Propulsion Testing


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National Aeronautics and
Space Administration

Office of Inspector General
Washington, DC 20546-0001

July 8, 2008

TO: Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Associate Administrator for Space Operations

FROM: Assistant Inspector General for Auditing

SUBJECT: Final Memorandum on the Review of NASA's Plan to Build the A-3 Facility for Rocket Propulsion Testing (Report No. IG-08-021; Assignment No. S-08-012-00)

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted a review of NASA's plan to build a new rocket propulsion test facility. We initiated this review in response to a complaint forwarded to the NASA OIG from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), alleging that NASA's planned rocket propulsion test facility at the Stennis Space Center would duplicate the capabilities found at the Air Force's Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) in Tennessee. Specifically, the complainant alleged that

  • NASA ignored the National Rocket Propulsion Test Alliance (NRPTA) process when deciding to build a new test facility at Stennis;
  • the planned Stennis test facility would duplicate existing capabilities found at AEDC; and
  • building the facility would result in a waste of funds.

See Enclosure 1 for details on our scope and methodology.

Executive Summary

The NRPTA, formed by an agreement between NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD), was established to shape the Government's rocket propulsion testing capability to efficiently meet national test needs through intra- and inter-agency cooperation. The NRPTA reviews testing needs and recommends solutions that provide the best overall value to the taxpayer. NASA's Rocket Propulsion Test Management Board (RPTMB) serves as the NASA decision-making body for rocket propulsion testing.

We found that NASA's Upper Stage Engine (USE) Element Manager, located at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, reviewed the J-2X rocket propulsion testing options and selected the A-3 test stand to be built at Stennis without the required formal reviews or recommendations of the NRPTA, or NASA's RPTMB. This occurred because NASA did not appropriately engage the NRPTA as required by the NRPTA Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). The NRPTA MOA and the RPTMB Operating Procedures require member reviews and recommendations prior to major test facility investments or modifications. In addition, we found that the processes contained in the the NRPTA MOA and the RPTMB Operating Procedures are not included in either a NASA Policy Directive or NASA Procedural Requirements.

Although the Rocket Propulsion Test (RPT) Program office used the NRPTA to gather information on potential J-2X testing options, NASA did not make a request for NRPTA member reviews and recommendations and subsequently made a unilateral decision to build the A-3 test stand at Stennis. The USE Element Manager stated that he selected the A-3 without, or prior to, receiving any recommendations from the RPTMB or NRPTA because the selection needed to be made in March 2007 to maintain the critical path of the Ares Project. We confirmed that the test facility was on the Ares Project's critical path. However, we found that the schedules projected for the A-3 and upgrading AEDC's J-4 facility, which presented a competing option, were the same, 31/2 years. Although the critical path of the Ares Project may explain the timing of the decision, it does not adequately justify the decision to build the A-3 exclusive of cost and technical risk comparisons with other facilities as would have been provided if the appropriate request was made of the NRPTA.

We also found that the test stand NASA intends to build at Stennis would not duplicate existing capabilities found at AEDC. We reviewed the J-2X engine testing requirements and determined that at the time of the decision to build the A-3, in May 2007, a test stand with all of the testing capabilities required for the new J-2X engine, as defined by Constellation Program and Ares Project requirements, was not available at AEDC, Stennis, or any other NASA or DoD facility. In addition, based on current cost estimates, we determined that building the A-3 would not be a waste of funds. However, concerns with the technical risks associated with the A-3 design and operations remain and could result in significant cost increases and schedule delays, which may in the future substantiate an alternative option as ultimately more cost-effective. Using the NRPTA process could have provided a forum for the resolution of these concerns and the development of a risk mitigation strategy, which may have provided added assurance of the successful development and implementation of a facility to meet J-2X engine testing requirements.

By failing to appropriately engage the NRPTA, NASA may have missed an opportunity to promote a more cooperative partnership with DoD in the area of rocket propulsion testing as well as an opportunity to benefit from the technical expertise resident among NRPTA members. In addition, because of NASA's unilateral decision, the Agency assumed technical and cost risks without the benefit of an independent review and the recommendations of NRPTA members.

Our May 19, 2008, draft of this memorandum recommended that the Associate Administrator for Space Operations issue a NASA Policy Directive (and NASA Procedural Requirements, if applicable) detailing the requirement for NASA's rocket propulsion test organizations to request formal reviews and recommendations from the RPTMB and, as applicable, the NRPTA, in accordance with RPTMB and NRPTA guidelines. Additionally, we recommended that the Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems take advantage of the technical expertise available in the rocket propulsion test community and request an independent review and assessment of the technical and cost risks associated with the planned A-3 test stand in order to develop a comprehensive risk mitigation strategy.

Management provided an initial response to the recommendations on June 30, 2008 (see Enclosure 3), and subsequently provided estimated completion dates, which we included in the "Recommendations, Management Response, and Evaluation" section of this memorandum. Management's comments are responsive. In commenting on the draft of this memorandum, NASA management concurred with our recommendations and proposed appropriate corrective actions. The recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of management's corrective actions.

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