Status Report

NASA OIG: NASA’s Management of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Program

By SpaceRef Editor
September 6, 2016
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NASA OIG: NASA’s Management of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Program

September 6, 2016 NASA Office of Inspector General Office of Audits IG-16-029 (A-15-003-00)

Full report


The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) will provide NASA with the capability to transport astronauts and cargo beyond low Earth orbit and is essential to achieving the Agency’s goal of expanding human presence in the solar system. One leg of a three-part system that includes a heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS) and a ground and launch support program known as Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO), the Orion vehicle has four major components: a crew module, a service module, a spacecraft adapter that connects the vehicle to the rocket, and a launch abort system. NASA began developing the vehicle now known as Orion in 2006 as part of the Agency’s Constellation Program and had spent about $3.7 billion on the effort when the Program was cancelled in 2010. Since then, NASA has spent about $1 billion annually, or about 6 percent of its overall budget, on the Orion Program. According to current estimates, the Agency will have devoted approximately $17 billion to the Program by the time Orion makes its first crewed flight in April 2023.

NASA has planned four missions for Orion: Exploration Flight Test-1, an uncrewed mission completed in December 2014 on a Delta IV rocket; Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), a 22- to 25-day uncrewed mission scheduled for September 2018 that will be the first launch of the combined SLS-Orion system; Ascent Abort Test 2 scheduled for December 2019 when NASA plans to launch a mock-up of Orion to test its launch abort and other systems; and Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), the first crewed flight for the combined system with a promised launch no later than April 2023. That said, the Orion Program has been working toward an August 2021 launch date for EM-2 in an effort to launch earlier and reduce costs. In this audit, we assessed the status of the Orion Program, including whether NASA could improve management of the 63 technical, schedule, and cost risks identified by the Program ranging from Orion’s flat funding profile to reuse of flight hardware. We also reviewed a sample of 18 risks, 9 of which Program officials identified as the most critical as of February 2015 and an additional 9 that fell into the Program’s highest risk category. These risks were characterized as having a greater than 90 percent probability of occurring or, if they did, the potential to cause catastrophic loss of life, loss of vehicle, loss of mission, or cost $500 million or more.


The Orion Program has met several key development milestones on the path to its first crewed mission, including a successful test flight in December 2014. However, much work remains, including evaluating options related to the delayed delivery of the European Service Module; continuing mitigation of seven critical risks while operating with a less-than-optimal budget profile for a developmental project; addressing a potential shortfall of $382 million in reserves managed by its prime contractor; and successfully launching and recovering EM-1 after its uncrewed test flight scheduled for September 2018. At the same time, Program officials are working toward an optimistic internal launch date of August 2021 for EM-2 – 20 months earlier than the Agency’s external commitment date of April 2023. While we understand the desire to meet a more aggressive schedule, this approach has led the Program to defer addressing some technical tasks to later in the development cycle, which in turn could negatively affect cost, schedule, and safety.

With respect to Orion’s major outstanding risks, the Program has made progress in developing the launch abort system, crew module, and service module elements of the Orion vehicle, while mitigating 10 of the 18 sampled risks. However, as of July 2016 NASA was still working to further mitigate seven of the risks we reviewed, including changes to the Program’s Test Plan and reuse of hardware on the vehicle that must be resolved prior to the launch of both EM-1 and EM-2.

Over its life, the Orion Program has experienced funding instability, both in terms of overall budget amounts and the erratic timing of receipt of those funds. In past reports, we noted that the most effective budget profile for large and complex space system development programs like Orion is steady funding in the early stages and increased funding during the middle stages of development. In contrast, the Orion Program’s budget profile through at least 2018 was nearly flat and Program officials acknowledged that this funding trajectory increased the risk that costly design changes may be needed in later stages of development when NASA integrates Orion with the SLS and GSDO. In addition, Orion officials noted that the timing of appropriations affected their ability to perform work as planned, with the Program receiving its funding between 4 and 8 months after the start of fiscal years 2012 – 2016.

We also found prime contractor Lockheed Martin is expending its management reserves at a higher rate than both the Program and the company expected and that, if continued, would deplete its reserve account almost a year before the planned launch of EM-1. Moreover, we found NASA is not monitoring the impact of this possibility on the Orion Program. Although Program officials acknowledged the current depletion rate is high, they believe it unlikely Lockheed will continue to draw at that rate and, if the reserve is depleted before the EM-2 launch, Lockheed could cover the costs or NASA could draw on other Agency funds. In our judgment, Orion Program managers would be better informed by formally addressing Lockheed’s management reserve as a Program cost risk.

Finally, the Program is working toward an internal planned launch date significantly earlier than the Agency’s external commitment date or estimates by an independent review board. We are concerned that such an optimistic approach, given the Program’s flat budget profile, increases the risk that Orion officials will defer certain tasks, which ultimately could delay the Program’s schedule and increase costs.


To improve the likelihood Orion will be safely operated and developed on cost and schedule, we made four recommendations to NASA including reevaluating the internal launch readiness dates for EM-1 and EM-2 and designating and managing depletion of Lockheed Martin’s reserve as a Program cost risk. The Agency concurred with our recommendations and proposed corrective actions. We find the actions responsive and therefore the recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon verification of the corrective actions.

SpaceRef staff editor.