Status Report

IFPTE Letter to House Science Committee Leadership Regarding GAO Report on NASA Exploration Cost and Schedule

By SpaceRef Editor
September 28, 2006
Filed under , , ,

September 18, 2006
Hon. Sherwood Boehlert, Chairman
Hon. Bart Gordon, Ranking Member
House Science Committee
2320 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairman Boehlert and Ranking Member Gordon,

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), NASA’s largest federal employee Union, is deeply concerned about NASA HQ’s recent awarding of a multi-billion dollar contract for the development and building of the new spacecraft Orion. This decision seems to ignore the results of a recent GAO Report on this issue and could lock a large portion of NASA’s budget for years to come into a financially imprudent, inadequately defined, and technically uncertain course of action. IFPTE would like to echo the warning sounded in the July 17, 2006 GAO Report entitled, Exploration Cost and Schedule (Report Number, GAO-06-817R), stating that, “NASA’s current acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk of significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls because it commits the government to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case. NASA plans to award a contract for the design, development, production, and sustainment of the CEV in September 2006 before it has developed key elements of a sound business case, including well- defined requirements, a preliminary design, mature technology, and firm cost estimates.”

If the proposed obligation of billions of NASA dollars ultimately leads to a failed Orion project, coming on the heels of the massive cost overruns and simultaneously evaporating science return of the International Space Station (ISS) as well as the aging Shuttle’s growing cost and safety burden, this could very well be the coup de grace for the Agency. NASA should be compelled to follow the more cautious pay-as-you-go approach originally called for by President Bush and not sign any large long-term contracts until detailed fiscal and technical plans for the Constellation program are fully developed and vetted by Congress.

The Orion contract is fiscally imprudent. The budgetary foundation needed to keep this financial promise is in serious doubt given the currently anticipated trend in NASA’s Appropriations. NASA management will likely resort to accelerating its marginalization of NASA’s Science and Aeronautics missions, as it devotes a larger and larger share of its resources to an increasing Constellation contract burden.

The Orion contract is programmatically compromised. The requirements foundation needed to force the contractor to keep its promises is simply not ready yet. The problem will only increase when other contracts are signed for other Constellation systems (the Aries launch vehicle and the Lunar Surface Access Module) and contractors begin to bicker over currently unspecified interface specifications and responsibilities. NASA will likely be forced to pay for arbitrarily large cost overruns and accept arbitrarily long schedule slips as the Orion and other Constellation contractors are delivered the final requirements some time down the road.

The Constellation architecture underlying the Orion contract is technically risky. The key principle behind the initial Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) was that existing technologies would be recycled to reduce costs and expedite Constellation’s development. Unfortunately, the currently proposed Constellation configuration uses these existing technologies in such fundamentally different ways that we are back to square one when it comes to man-rating and other flight-worthiness concerns. Consequently, the entire rationale for the specific ESAS approach is undermined. More importantly, NASA may be forced to change its core Constellation architecture once the thornier technical issues are fully examined. Being locked into a long-term Orion contract will hamper NASA’s flexibility to deal with any modifications to the ESAS architecture by limiting re-design options.

Although we realize the enormous temptation to get the ball rolling and not get stuck in seemingly endless in-house planning spirals, we remember how the X-33 dream ended up a fiasco with a billion dollars vaporized for naught, we remember how poor management betrayed the spaceflight dreams of a previous generation and caused the ISS to fizzle into an expensive and gutted shell of what it was supposed to be, and we remember the massive ramp-up and abrupt cancellation of the Space Launch Initiative. We must not forget the past nor should we be fooled by wishful thinking and unsustainable business plans, no matter how noble the intent or beautiful the dream. NASA management must proceed with new vehicle development at a more measured, yet steady and deliberate, pace that fulfills the promise of the Vision within realistic budgetary boundaries that do not permit pilfering of the Aeronautics and Science budgets. In addition to tougher oversight of the Constellation program, IFPTE asks that Congress do its part and provide NASA with an Appropriations level commensurate with the numerous and daunting responsibilities the President and Congress have assigned to it.

We therefore ask that Congress demand more mature fiscal, programmatic, and technical plans before NASA HQ is allowed to commit billions of dollars of the nation’s resources in long-term Constellation contracts. We applaud your decision to hold hearings in the House Science Committee to assess the impact of the Orion contract within the context of the recent GAO report. The stakes could not be higher as NASA has already begun to renege on key commitments in Science and Aeronautics in order to finance the current Constellation plans. Despite many tens of billions of dollars invested in building the ISS, arguably the most expensive single scientific research laboratory ever, the Administration is considering zeroing the ISS research budget for several years and is proposing to cut NASA’s FY07 Science account by at least $266.8 million from this year’s initial Appropriation. Taxpayers are being deprived of the science return they were promised from their prior investments. The Administration is also proposing to cut NASA’s FY07 Aeronautics account by at least $179 million dollars. NASA is abandoning portions of its long-standing commitment to enhance American aviation competitiveness and to increase airspace safety. These alarming anti-science and anti-aeronautics budget trends will only get worse if NASA management is allowed to sign large, long-term Constellation contracts, prematurely locking in a fiscally, programmatically, and technical risky plan and shackling the Agency for years to come.

In closing, IFPTE would like to once again emphasize its enthusiastic support for NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration and for the many thousands of dedicated men and women across all ten NASA Centers and within the contractor community working diligently to make that Vision a reality. It is because of our dedication to this noble cause that we feel compelled to speak up now. We look forward to helping your committees make sure that the Vision is a success and that the American people get the value they deserve from their Aerospace Agency.


Gregory J. Junemann

Cc: Hon. Frank Wolf, Chairman, House Science, State, Justice Appropriations

Hon. Alan Mollohan, Ranking Member, House Science, State, Justice
Appropriations Subcommittee

SpaceRef staff editor.