NASA OIG: NASA's Plans for Human Exploration Beyond Low Earth Orbit

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Thursday, April 13, 2017


Full report


Human exploration of Mars has been a long-term goal of NASA and the Nation for the past 5 decades. In 2015, the Agency announced its Journey to Mars framework for deep space exploration with manned missions to Mars beginning in the 2030s. In addition to the technical and health-related challenges of deep space missions, such a multi-decadal venture will be very expensive, with NASA's budget projections for human exploration to Mars exceeding $210 billion by 2033.

A vital part of achieving its long-term human exploration goals is the successful development of NASA's new spaceflight system – the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) capsule, and the ground processing and launch facilities (Ground Systems Development and Operations or GSDO) needed to launch the rocket and capsule for cislunar and deep space exploration. NASA has invested more than $15 billion in these three programs since 2012, and its near-term goals include a first uncrewed flight of the integrated SLS/Orion systems –Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) – no later than November 2018 followed by a crewed flight – Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) – as early as 2021.1 However, NASA's plans beyond these two missions are less clear, with several options in early development, including robotic and crewed missions to an asteroid in the early to mid-2020s to test technologies and capabilities that would be needed for a mission to Mars. Moreover, these scenarios were developed during the previous administration, and the Agency's new leadership is seeking to modify those plans with the President's fiscal year 2018 budget request proposing cancellation of the Asteroid Redirect Mission and the Agency issuing a document in March 2017 that modifies and fleshes out some of its plans.

In light of the enormous costs and challenges and the critical decisions that must be made in the next several years, we examined NASA's plans for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit in the near-term, mid-term, and long-term. Specifically, we assessed the Agency's (1) plans for and progress towards its first flights of the integrated SLS/Orion systems in the next 2 to 5 years, (2) challenges in executing a sustainable and affordable plan to send a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s or 2040s, and (3) strategies to help reduce the costs of its human exploration efforts. To complete this work, we analyzed cost data, interviewed Agency officials, conducted on-site inspections, and reviewed planning documents, feasibility studies, and other relevant program documentation.


NASA's initial exploration missions on its Journey to Mars – EM-1 and EM-2 – face multiple cost and technical challenges that likely will affect their planned launch dates. Moreover, although the Agency's combined investment for development of the SLS, Orion, and GSDO programs will reach approximately $23 billion by the end of fiscal year 2018, the programs' average monetary reserves for the years leading up to EM-1 are much lower than the 10 to 30 percent recommended by Marshall Space Flight Center guidance. Low monetary reserves limit the programs' flexibility to cover increased costs or delays resulting from unexpected design complexity, incomplete requirements, or technology uncertainties. Moreover, software development and verification efforts for all three programs are behind schedule to meet a November 2018 EM-1 launch. Finally, NASA does not have a life-cycle cost estimate or integrated schedule for EM-2, which makes it difficult for Agency officials and external stakeholders to understand the full costs of EM-2 or gauge the validity of launch date assumptions.

Beyond EM-2, NASA's plans for achieving a crewed Mars surface mission in the late 2030s or early 2040s remain understandably high level, serving as more of a strategic framework than a detailed operational plan. For example, the Agency's current Journey to Mars strategy does not identify key system requirements other than SLS, Orion, and GSDO, or offer target mission dates for a crewed orbit of Mars or landings on the planet's surface or nearby moon. If the Agency is to reach its goal of sending humans to the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s, significant development work on key systems such as a deep space habitat, in-space transportation, and Mars landing and ascent vehicles must be undertaken in the 2020s, and the Agency will need to make these and many other decisions in the next 5 years or so for that to happen. In addition, to position itself to make wise investment decisions, NASA will need to begin developing more detailed cost estimates for its Mars exploration program after EM-2. More concrete estimates will also be necessary as Agency officials work with Congress and other stakeholders to ensure the commitment exists to fund a mission of this magnitude over the next several decades. In addition, NASA's decision whether to continue spending $3 to $4 billion annually to maintain the International Space Station after 2024 will affect its funding profile for human exploration efforts in the 2020s, and therefore has implications for the Agency's Mars plans.

NASA acknowledges that to successfully execute the Journey to Mars, cost saving measures and cost sharing must be part of its strategy. Consequently, the Agency has explored reusing systems and subsystems, developing new acquisition strategies, and exploiting technology innovations to help reduce the high cost of deep space exploration. In addition, sharing costs with foreign space agencies and the private sector could help NASA reduce its overall costs, and NASA is partnering with industry to conduct multiple trade studies on the systems needed for the Journey to Mars and providing technical and mission support to Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) related to the company's planned uncrewed Mars mission. Moreover, the recently enacted NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 cites expanding permanent human presence beyond low Earth orbit together with international, academic, and industry partners as the country's long-term goal for human space exploration efforts.


To increase the fidelity, accountability, and transparency of NASA's human exploration goals beyond low Earth orbit, we recommended the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (1) complete an integrated master schedule for the SLS, Orion, and GSDO programs for the EM-2 mission; (2) establish more rigorous cost and schedule estimates for the SLS and associated GSDO infrastructure for EM-2; (3) establish objectives, need-by dates for key systems, and phase transition mission dates to flesh out its Journey to Mars framework; and (4) include cost as a factor in NASA's Journey to Mars feasibility studies when assessing various potential missions and systems. To improve cost savings efforts, we recommended the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (5) design a strategy for collaborating with international space agencies in their cislunar space exploration efforts with a focus on advancing key systems and capabilities needed for Mars exploration, and (6) incorporate into analyses of space flight system architectures the potential for utilization of private launch vehicles for transportation of payloads.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred or partially concurred with our recommendations and described planned corrective actions. We consider the proposed actions responsive to all but recommendation 2, and therefore will close those recommendations upon verification and completion of the actions. For the remaining open recommendation, we will continue to work with the Agency to resolve our concerns regarding establishing more rigorous cost and schedule estimates for the SLS and associated GSDO infrastructure for EM-2.

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