Status Report

NASA’s Launch Support and Infrastructure Modernization: Assessment of Ground Systems Needed to Launch SLS / Orion

By SpaceRef Editor
March 18, 2015
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NASA’s Launch Support and Infrastructure Modernization: Assessment of Ground Systems Needed to Launch SLS / Orion

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More than 50 years after serving as the launch site for the storied Apollo Program, the Kennedy Space Center (Kennedy) is working to revamp decades-old infrastructure and transform itself into a multi-user spaceport to accommodate both commercial spaceflight companies and the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) NASA is developing for its next stage of deep-space exploration.

NASA has spent more than $975 million on modernization efforts at Kennedy over the last 5 years and anticipates spending an additional $2.4 billion over the next 5 to upgrade such infrastructure as the Launch Pad 39B, from which the Agency launched the Apollo and Space Shuttle flights; the Mobile Launcher built for the cancelled Constellation Program; one of the crawler-transporters NASA used to move spacecraft to launch pads for almost 50 years; the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) constructed in the mid-1960s to support the Apollo Program and which the Agency used to process Space Shuttle orbiters; as well as to develop the software necessary to integrate and launch the SLS and Orion. The Agency’s Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program is leading this effort.

In this review we evaluated whether the GSDO Program is meeting cost, schedule, and technical performance goals as it prepares Kennedy to launch the SLS and Orion on Exploration Mission 1 by the current target date of no later than November 2018.


GSDO has made steady progress on the major equipment and facilities modernization initiatives needed to launch SLS and Orion, but significant technical and programmatic challenges remain to meet a November 2018 launch date. For the most part, these challenges originate from interdependencies between the GSDO, SLS, and Orion Programs. In short, GSDO cannot finalize and complete its requirements without substantial input from the other two Programs, and NASA is still finalizing the requirements for those Programs. Specifically, GSDO must overcome (1) a short timeframe for performing verification and validation testing between the Mobile Launcher, VAB, and Launch Pad 39B; (2) receipt of data and hardware regarding Orion later than planned; (3) the potential that integrated operations for Exploration Mission 1 may take longer than expected; and (4) most significantly, delays associated with development of command and control software.

At the time of our audit, GSDO was scheduled to complete a significant development milestone known as Critical Design Review in March 2015, several months before SLS (May 2015) and Orion (August 2015). The purpose of the Critical Design Review is to demonstrate a project’s design is sufficiently mature to proceed to full scale fabrication, assembly, integration, and testing and technical aspects are on track to meet performance requirements within identified cost and schedule constraints. In our judgment, given the many interdependencies between the Programs, a schedule that has GSDO completing Critical Design Review prior to the other two Programs increases the risk GSDO may experience schedule delays or be required to perform costly redesign work.

NASA’s Launch Support and Infrastructure Modernization: Assessment of the Ground Systems Needed to Launch SLS and Orion March 18, 2015IG-15-012 (A-13-020-00)Finally, coordinating and integrating development of the three individual Programs to meet a common milestone date presents a unique challenge, particularly since NASA historically has used a single program structure to manage similar efforts such as Apollo and the Space Shuttle. In lieu of central management, NASA established a cross-program integration structure that designates leaders from each Program to coordinate and align the Programs’ development schedules. It is too early to say whether these substantial coordination challenges will result in cost or schedule issues for the Exploration Mission 1 launch. Moreover, new issues are likely to be uncovered during integration  the point at which most projects encounter technical problems that impact cost and schedule. Given these challenges, coordination efforts among the GSDO, SLS, and Orion Programs are essential to successfully meeting NASA’s human exploration goals.


In order to decrease the risk that the GSDO Program will experience cost increases or schedule delays, we recommended the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations reevaluate allowing GSDO to complete Critical Design Review before the SLS and Orion Programs. In response to a draft of our report, NASA management concurred with our recommendation and indicated it had changed the dates of the Programs’ Critical Design Reviews so that the SLS and Orion reviews (currently planned for July and October 2015, respectively) will precede the GSDO review (currently planned for December 2015). However, NASA management noted a risk that the dates planned for SLS and Orion could slip and the GSDO review occur first. Accordingly, NASA should closely monitor the Programs to ensure any such risk is mitigated so as to avoid significant cost increases or schedule delays. The recommendation is resolved and will be closed upon verification and completion of the proposed action.

SpaceRef staff editor.