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SLS welding tool
The Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans during a ribbon-cutting ceremony September 12. Billed as the largest spacecraft welding tool in the world, it will be used to assemble core stages of the Space Launch System. (credit: NASA)

Schedule slips raise alarms about NASA’s exploration program

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On Friday, NASA held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The sprawling facility itself wasn’t the subject of the ceremony—it’s been around for decades, manufacturing Space Shuttle external tanks and, before that, Saturn V first stages—but instead a new welding tool. That might not seem like much reason for a ceremony that brought the NASA administrator, the mayor of New Orleans, and a United States senator, among others, to Michoud. But the Vertical Assembly Center is no portable arc welder. At nearly 52 meters call and 24 meters wide, the VAC is the largest spacecraft welding tool in the world, according to NASA, built to assemble the core stage of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket.

“In December of 2017, my hardware will show up to support that [EM-1] flight,” SLS program manger May said.

Friday’s ribbon cutting came after a day after another minor, yet widely publicized, milestone for NASA’s exploration program. At the Kennedy Space Center, workers rolled out the first Orion spacecraft, recently mated to its service module and launch adapter, from the building at KSC where it was assembled to a nearby one where it will be fueled with hydrazine. The spacecraft is on track for launch on a Delta IV Heavy in early December on an uncrewed test flight.

That test flight, designated Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), is a warmup for the full-up test of both SLS and Orion on Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). That launch, where the SLS will send an uncrewed Orion into cislunar space and back, is officially planned for late 2017. Despite those stated plans, though, there’s growing evidence, from a recent SLS review to comments by an agency manager, that NASA won’t be able to meet that schedule. That could, in turn, reopen debates about the agency’s priorities in human spaceflight and other areas.

“We don’t think of this as a slip”

In recent months, both NASA and industry officials have emphasized that development of SLS, leading up to that inaugural flight in late 2017, was on or even ahead of schedule. At a conference in May, Boeing’s program manager for its work on the SLS said they were going into a critical design review five months ahead of schedule (see “Making progress, and seeking stability, with SLS and Orion”, The Space Review, May 27, 2014).

Last month, NASA’s SLS program manager offered a similarly positive assessment about the progress they were making. “Things are going pretty well. As far as the critical path, we’ve still got three to five months of slack,” said Todd May in a speech August 8 at the International Mars Society Convention in the Houston suburb of League City, Texas. That schedule slack was for when the integrated core stage would be delivered to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for testing. “In December of 2017, my hardware will show up to support that [EM-1] flight,” May said.

Given those pronouncements, what NASA announced August 27 was a surprise, at least to some people. NASA that day announced that they had completed a review of the SLS called, in agency program management nomenclature, Key Decision Point C (KDP-C). That review set the program’s budget and schedule baselines, and allowed the program to go into full-scale development.

To set those cost and budget estimates, NASA used a methodology called Joint Confidence Level (JCL). That approach uses modeling of cost, schedule, and risk information to provide a probability that a program will meet a specific cost and schedule estimate. While NASA has used the JCL approach on many science missions in recent years, SLS was the first human spaceflight program to make use of it.

The KDP-C results announced August 27 set an estimated development cost of SLS of $7.021 billion, at the 70-percent confidence level: that is, there is a 70-percent chance SLS will be completed for that amount or less. (That baseline cost covers activities from February 2014 through first launch; earlier development work increases that cost to $9.695 billion.) That amount, NASA officials said, fit within the projected budget profile for the program.

The surprise, though, came in the schedule estimate: the 70-percent confidence level for that first launch was November 2018, nearly a year later than the December 2017 date that NASA had been using for EM-1. While SLS could be ready for launch before then—the November 2018 date was a “no later than”—the 70-percent confidence level meant that there was a 30-percent chance SLS would not be ready until after November 2018.

“We’ve committed to the agency that we will be there by November of 2018,” Gerstenmaier said. “I look to my team to do better than that.”

In a teleconference with reporters the day of the announcement, organized on just a few hours’ notice, agency executives emphasized that they still believed SLS could be ready to launch before the KDP-C date. “If we don’t do anything, we basically have a 70-percent chance of getting to that date,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said of the November 2018 date.

Gerstenmaier said he wanted the SLS program to examine various risks to the schedule and see what they can do to mitigate those risks. “We’ve committed to the agency that we will be there by November of 2018,” he said. “I look to my team to do better than that by holding essentially to the schedule that we’ve got in place today and to continue to move forward.”

“It’s important that we don’t think of this as a slip to the team, that we’ve moved to this date of 2018,” he said. “In fact, the teams internally are still on the same schedule they’ve been for the past three years and we’re making significant forward progress.”

The review did not calculate the probability that SLS would be ready by the scheduled December 2017 launch date, although Gerstenmaier said it would be “significantly less” than the 70-percent JCL associated with the November 2018 date.

In the teleconference, though, Gerstenmaier sounded almost resigned to having the EM-1 launch slip at least into early 2018, if not all the way to November. “Everyone kind of wants to focus on the launch date, and when is that first date,” he said, referring to EM-1. “It’s probably some time in the 2018 timeframe, but we don’t want to get too specific now.”

“I think we still have a good chance of SLS being there some time in the December [2017] timeframe, maybe slightly into ’18,” he said.

Orion “challenged” to make 2017

In the announcement of the KDP-C review, NASA emphasized that the no-later-than November 2018 date for EM-1 was a “launch readiness” date. That is, it’s when SLS would be ready to fly, not necessarily when it would actually launch. An actual launch date would depend on the readiness of two other elements: the ground systems that support SLS at KSC, and the Orion spacecraft itself.

“We’re going to be challenged to make December ’17,” Orion program manager Geyer said.

Both the ground systems and Orion will have their own KDP-C reviews, with their accompanying cost and schedule estimates. The ground systems review will be done “right behind” the SLS review, followed by Orion in early 2015, said NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot in the August 27 media teleconference. “At that point we’ll then bring those three elements together and we’ll be able to assess the readiness for the actual first launch,” he said.

In a speech at the Mars Society conference August 9, Orion program manager Mark Geyer talked up the capabilities and progress made on Orion. That included development of Orion’s service module by ESA, which had suffered some development delays. “They’re doing a terrific job,” he said of ESA.

Geyer even suggested that, with additional funding, it would be possible to accelerate the schedule for the first crewed SLS/Orion mission, EM-2, currently planned for late 2021. “The 2021 [date] is absolutely driven by budget,” he said. “I think we can absolutely fly in that ’19 timeframe if we had the money.”

Asked, though, about how the slack in his schedule for EM-1 compared to what SLS manager Todd May said a day earlier at the same conference, Geyer was more pessimistic. “We’re going to be challenged to make December ’17,” he said.

That challenge, he said, stems from the decision to add the EFT-1 flight test, which remains on schedule for this December. “We put this EFT-1 flight test in our plan without any more money,” he said. “That did affect my ability to start EM-1 as soon as I wanted to.” Adding ESA to the program also added challenges, he said.

The benefits of adding the EFT-1 test outweighed the potential to delay the overall program, Geyer argued. “We felt it was more important to build a flight unit and fly it, because we’re going to learn so much about what the risks are that we’ll reduce—significantly reduce—the risks downstream to EM-1 and EM-2,” he said. “To us it was worth the potential impact on EM-1.”


News that SLS likely won’t be ready for launch until 2018, and that Orion may also be delayed, didn’t sit well with two key members of Congress. On the same day that NASA announced the KDP-C review for SLS, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steven Palazzo (R-MS), the chairmen of the full House Science Committee and its space subcommittee respectively, sent a letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden asking about potential delays in those programs.

The letter didn’t cite the KDP-C review itself, but instead a July report by the Government Accountability Office that concluded the SLS program may be $400 million short of what it needed to launch in 2017, as well as comments by Geyer at another conference last month where, like at the Mars Society conference, he warned of the challenges of having Orion ready for a 2017 launch.

Smith and Palazzo blame the Obama Administration for not seeking sufficient funding to keep those programs on track. “Despite numerous statements over several years that these two national priority programs are sufficiently funded, it now appears that this may not be the case,” they wrote.

“In fact, despite NASA’s best efforts to keep these programs on track, it appears as though the Administration is starving these programs of funding and preventing important development work with the goal of pushing back schedules,” they added in the letter.

“Technically things look good,” Sen. Nelson (D-FL) said. “But we need to keep the budget on track so NASA can meet an earlier readiness date—which I think can be done.”

However, they acknowledge, Congress has funded these programs above the administration’s request in recent years. In fiscal year 2014, the administration requested $1.385 billion for SLS, for example, but the final appropriations bill approved by Congress gave the program $1.6 billion. The proposed 2015 budget submitted by the administration quested $1.38 billion again for SLS, but an appropriations bill passed by the House would give it $1.6 billion, while one introduced but not yet approved by the Senate would provide $1.7 billion.

It was that additional funding, May said last month, which made the conclusions in the GAO report out of date. “They saw some things a couple of years ago. Some of the data is now obsolete,” he said when asked about the report at the Mars Society conference.

In the letter, Smith and Palazzo don’t promise to take any specific action, beyond continuing work with the Senate on a NASA authorization bill. They do ask Bolden a series of questions about the development of SLS; responses were due back to the congressmen last week.

One thing members of Congress can do is provide yet more additional funding for SLS and Orion. A final 2015 appropriations bill won’t be done until late this year, likely during the “lame duck” session after the November elections. Congress will instead pass, likely this week, a continuing resolution that funds NASA and other government agencies at 2014 levels from the beginning of the 2015 fiscal year on October 1 into December.

However, if Congress seeks to increase SLS and Orion funding, they likely will have to find any additional money from within the agency’s budget, unless they’re able to secure additional funds from other agencies. That could then set up debates about NASA priorities among its various programs: who gets cut, and by how much, to support SLS and Orion?

“Technically things look good,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in a brief statement issued by his office the day of the SLS KDP-C announcement. “But we need to keep the budget on track so NASA can meet an earlier readiness date—which I think can be done.”

He didn’t disclose what he would do to keep “the budget on track,” although he could take steps to at least authorize higher funding levels for the program in an updated NASA authorization bill that he is said to be working on. But even as NASA touts the progress it’s making with SLS and Orion, these programs are certain to come under greater scrutiny over the next several months.