Government inspectors put NASA's Orion program under microscope

Less than a week after a SpaceX launch pad explosion, federal inspectors have questioned NASA’s plan for building the Orion space capsule in a report that again illustrates how complicated, costly and dangerous it is to travel in space.

Specifically, the NASA Inspector General’s report released Tuesday questions NASA decision to build multiple segments of its new human space program at the same time to save time and money. It also urges the space agency to re-evaluate its launch plans to avoid risking the capsule and, in its final scheduled flight, the astronauts on board.

In its reply, NASA agreed to take another look at the schedule that it said it constantly monitors, but added that the space agency is “confident that the cost and risk schedule of the current approach is manageable.” The Inspector General ultimately concluded NASA’s answers to the office’s questions were acceptable.

Orion is one part of NASA’s three-part system for future space travel that also includes the heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System being developed in Huntsville, Ala., plus ground and launch support efforts at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The report called Orion “essential to achieving (NASA’s) goal of expanding human presence in the solar system.”

So far, NASA has spent about $10 billion on Orion with funding held level at about $1 billion a year since 2011. That was the budget year President Obama removed the earlier Constellation rocket program that also included Orion from his proposed budget, only to have Congress force him to put the current program back in.

Only deep space ride

Orion is America’s only vehicle being built for deep space missions, but so far NASA has planned only four test flights and nothing beyond. They are a 2014 Earth orbit already completed; Exploration Misson-1 (EM-1), a joint test of SLS and Orion by a flight around the moon now scheduled for September 2018; a 2019 test of Orion’s launch-abort system; and Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), a crewed flight around the moon.

NASA has committed to launch EM-2 in April 2023, but management is aiming internally for an earlier date of August 2021. To make that happen, it is working on the capsule, heavy-lift rocket, and launch systems at the same time – something the inspectors say is both budget and schedule risky.

The report also notes that NASA has no committed missions for Orion after 2023. Instead, the space agency says it will deliver then “a core vehicle” that can be upgraded for whatever mission America chooses next. NASA has told the public it is on a “Mission to Mars,” but that is a long-term investment future Congresses and the next president must agree to continue.

From money to technology

The Inspector General’s report examines nine of 18 risks to Orion identified by NASA as “top program risks.” The challenges range from money to dangerous technical issues.

No. 1:  Continued flat funding of about $1 billion a year means an “incremental development approach” that could cost more and take more time in the end, inspectors said.

No. 2: As it stands now, Orion’s weight when it lands with a crew after circling the moon “will exceed” current maximum limits.

No. 3: The critical European Service Module that is to ride to the moon behind Orion carrying oxygen and water for the astronauts has no clear funding plan right now and could delay the mission and increase its costs.

No. 4: As the Orion system grows with EM-1 and EM-2, the flight control module may not be able to process the necessary data without significant software and hardware upgrades.

No. 5: Orion’s heat shield cracked during the unmanned test flight requiring a change in design that won’t be flight tested until EM-1.

No. 6: During launch abort tests, the abort motor is producing “high levels of random vibrations” that could cause hardware to fail.

No. 7: The Orion program has changed testing for components and systems to save money. Instead of testing everything together (fully integrated), it is now testing components and subsystems across multiple points and vehicles.

No. 8: Aborts on the launch pad or at low altitude could destroy Orion and kill the crew because “the crew module was not designed to land in water less than 10 feet in depth or on solid ground.”

No. 9: The parachutes that lower Orion to the sea on re-entry have generated “a pendulum-like swinging motion that could not be overcome by the recovery control system” in certain tests. That could mean entering the water faster and a steeper angles, “which could result in loss of crew or vehicle.”

Spending the reserve

The inspector’s report also points to risks in prime Orion contractor Lockheed Martin’s decision to use some of its management reserve funds to keep Orion on schedule.

“Successful development of the Orion vehicle is essential to achieving NASA’s goal of expanding human presence beyond low Earth orbit and the Moon,” the inspectors conclude. “To facilitate Orion’s development, (NASA) is using a risk management process to proactively address issues that could impede progress. That process has advanced vehicle development through a successful flight test mission, resolution of issues disclosed by the test flight, and reduction of some program risks.

“However, the program continues to face significant obstacles to developing a flight-ready vehicle that meets safety requirements for human space flight, including mitigating risks for EM-1 and EM-2, managing risks to contractor reserves, and addressing schedule issues. The program must overcome these obstacles within the context of anticipated flat budgets and future funding uncertainty.”

In its response, NASA agreed its strategy “is not without risk,” but said it “is key that the (inspectors) found the Orion Program risk management process to be effective….”

The space agency formally “concurred” with each of the Inspector General’s four specific recommendations, and the Inspector General’s office said it found NASA “responsive” and the issues closed for now.