Summary: GAO-02-1020 Space Transportation: Challenges Facing NASA’s Space Launch Initiative

Status Report From: Government Accountability Office
Posted: Thursday, October 3, 2002

Full Report

September 17, 2002

The Honorable Dana Rohrabacher
The Honorable Bart Gordon
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
Committee on Science
House of Representatives

In 2001, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began undertaking a new effort - the Space Launch Initiative (SLI) - to develop a new generation of space transportation vehicles. SLI is expected to result in the development of the second generation of reusable launch vehicles, the space shuttle being the first generation. NASA plans to spend $4.8 billion on the program through fiscal year 2006. SLI is part of a broader program - known as NASA's Integrated Space Transportation Plan - to address future space transportation needs. Under the plan, NASA envisions making upgrades to extend the life of the space shuttle and undertaking longer-term research and development of future transportation technologies and transportation systems, including space vehicles that can reach orbit in just one-stage.

SLI is a highly ambitious program. It will require NASA to develop and advance new technologies, such as propulsion and airframe systems, which in turn can potentially be used by U.S. industry to create new business opportunities in space. The undertaking will also require a high level of communication and coordination between a range of partners, including private-sector contractors, academia, and the Department of Defense (DOD). Moreover, it will require effective controls and oversight to reduce cost, scheduling, and technical risks. NASA's previous attempts to develop a new generation of space vehicles were unsuccessful largely because NASA did not successfully implement and adhere to critical project management controls and activities.

You requested that we assess NASA's progress with the Space Launch Initiative, particularly with respect to defining requirements and implementing management controls.

NASA plans to define basic requirements for its second-generation reusable launch vehicle - that is, what the crew size will be, what the payload capacity will be, and what designs or architectures are worth pursuing - by November 2002. But considerable challenges must be addressed before NASA can accomplish this.

First, NASA has to complete a reassessment of its overall space transportation plans. In doing so, it must decide whether it should continue pursuing the development of second-generation vehicles as planned, pursue alternative ways to develop the second generation in order to more quickly replace the space shuttle, or postpone these efforts altogether indefinitely until there is a major breakthrough in technology that could vastly improve performance and reduce costs. This decision will be difficult, given the uncertainties about the availability of technologies needed to reduce costs and enhance performance for future space flight.

Second, NASA is currently reassessing the future of the International Space Station. The decisions it will make as part of this evaluation, such as how many crew will operate the station, will have a dramatic impact on NASA's requirements for a second-generation vehicle. But they will be difficult to reach, since they require NASA to come to agreement with international partners who are concerned about planned cutbacks to the station's capabilities.

Third, NASA needs to decide whether the SLI program will be developed jointly with DOD and, if so, how it can accommodate DOD's requirements for a reusable launch vehicle. So far, indications are that NASA and DOD will share many of the same objectives for the vehicle, but there are significant differences in priorities and requirements.

Until NASA finalizes its basic requirements for SLI, it cannot implement management controls that are essential to predicting what the total costs of the program will be and to minimizing risks with NASA's planned initial investment of $4.8 billion. These include cost estimates, controls designed to provide early warnings of cost and schedule overruns, and risk mitigation plans. Moreover, there are potential impediments to NASA's development and effective use of a detailed cost estimate, including the lack of a modern integrated financial management system. Lastly, NASA does not plan to develop several measures that are important to assessing how the program as a whole is making progress toward achieving its key objectives, reducing risks, and maturing technology.

Results in Brief

It is important for NASA to implement management controls for SLI as soon as possible, so that it can provide its managers and the Congress with the information needed to ensure that the program is on track and able to meet expectations. We are making recommendations to NASA that focus on the need to make decisions with regard to the future of NASA's overall space transportation plan, the future of the space station, and DOD's participation in the SLI program before setting requirements for SLI. We are also making recommendations aimed at implementing management controls for the SLI program.

In its comments to a draft of this report, NASA stated that it concurs with the recommendations. NASA believes that much of the SLI program's success is directly related to the implementation of project management controls and appropriate levels of insight. NASA's response is included as appendix 1.

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