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New government reports cast doubt on future of NASA's Mars spacecraft

New government reports cast doubt on future of NASA's Mars spacecraft

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For the past six years, NASA has been intensely focused on sending people to Mars — but the rocket and spacecraft that the agency is building for the job face delays and budget problems. That’s according to two new independent reviews done by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a federal agency that conducts audits on behalf of Congress. Released last week, the reports paint a grim picture for NASA’s Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System (SLS) — the huge new expendable rocket that would launch the crew capsule to space. The GAO has little confidence that both the Orion and the SLS will meet their scheduled milestones, and the capsule could exceed its intended budget, the GAO hints.

The reports paint a grim picture for NASA’s Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System

The Orion and the SLS are the primary features of NASA’s "Journey to Mars" initiative. The teardrop-shaped Orion crew capsule is designed to ride into space on top of the SLS, carrying a crew of four astronauts into deep space. NASA plans to use the Orion and SLS combo to send astronauts to an asteroid in orbit around the Moon in the 2020s, a program known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission. After that, Orion will eventually be used to send a crew on to the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s, though details about when and how that will happen have yet to be clearly defined.

But before any Mars trips can occur, NASA has to test the vehicles out first. In December 2014, NASA launched a test version of the Orion into deep space, making it the first spacecraft designed for humans to travel beyond Earth's orbit since the end of the Apollo program. Now, NASA is working toward the first launch of the SLS, which is slated to occur in September of 2018 (or no later than November). For that test, dubbed Exploration Mission 1, the SLS will carry an uncrewed version of Orion into orbit around the Moon. That will eventually be followed up by Exploration Mission 2, when people will ride to space on the Orion / SLS for the first time. NASA says that trip will happen no later than April 2023, though the space agency is working toward an "aggressive" internal date of August 2021.

An artistic rendering of the Space Launch System. (NASA)

The GAO isn’t so confident about that schedule though. The agency thinks that the upcoming dates set for Orion are "not reliable based on schedule estimating best practices," according to one of the studies. Plus, the budget that NASA has proposed for Orion has also been heavily scrutinized. In September, NASA said it would need $11.3 billion to get Orion ready for the April 2023 launch date. But the GAO said that cost estimate "lacked support."

The upcoming dates set for Orion are "not reliable"

There’s even less confidence about the 2021 date NASA has set for itself. The report argues that setting an earlier launch date isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it means that NASA is accepting higher risk in order to meet that goal. Plus there aren’t a lot of funds and resources to make the earlier launch date happen.

As for the SLS, the rocket has its own problems. The GAO says there’s a lot of pressure to finish the rocket on schedule, but NASA has a limited amount of time and budget to pull off the 2018 launch goal. The agency is also worried about NASA’s ability to get things ready on the ground for that launch. NASA has to renovate one of the launch sites at Kennedy Space Center so that it can support SLS launches, as well as build new structures such as a mobile launch platform that can transport the rocket to the launch pad. These ground programs also risk missing their deadlines, as they could encounter technical challenges that take time and money to fix — things that NASA doesn’t really have.

"All the programs are working with very low management reserves in terms of dollars and time," Cristina Chaplain, who led the GAO studies, said in a podcast accompanying the GAO reports. "It makes it very difficult to manage a program under those circumstances. It puts them in a position of deferring work to later stages, where it could be more costly and time consuming to address."

It’s not the first time that Orion and SLS have come under fire

It’s not the first time that Orion and SLS have come under fire. The GAO has released less-than-glowing reviews of SLS in the past. And NASA’s safety and advisory panel has made it clear that it is concerned with the space agency taking risks to meet the aggressive schedules set for the programs. Plus, Congress hasn’t been too pleased with NASA’s whole Journey to Mars initiative in general lately. The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has repeatedly criticized NASA for lacking a detailed plan on how to get to Mars using the SLS and Orion. And recently, Congress has been expressing more and more interest about NASA returning to the Moon before pursuing the Red Planet.

These are all sentiments that were echoed by Chaplain in the GAO podcast. "We don’t have goals as clearly defined as we did back then," said Chaplain, referring to the Apollo era. "At this point, NASA’s focus [is] on just building a capability to go farther out to space than the International Space Station...The long-term plans are still a little unclear."