Auditors to NASA: Don't trust your own cost estimates
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: August 23, 2011
NASA's internal cost assumptions for developing a colossal heavy-lift Space Launch System and multi-purpose spacecraft are too optimistic should not be fully trusted, according to an independent analysis by Booz Allen Hamilton.
Although NASA Administrator Charles Bolden approved the design of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket in June, the White House held up the public release of the launcher's engineering layout until the completion of a cost analysis.
The Booz Allen Hamilton review team found NASA's cost estimates were optimistic for the SLS, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV, and an initiative to upgrade launch infrastructure for the 21st century.
"All three program estimates assume large, unsubstantiated, future cost efficiencies leading to the impression that they are optimistic," the team said in its key findings.
A risk assessment revealed the funding reserves projected for all three programs are insufficient, according to Booz Allen Hamilton. NASA has not disclosed its internal cost estimate for the Space Launch System.
"Due to procurement of items still in development and large cost risks in the out years, NASA cannot have full confidence in the estimates for long-term planning," the executive summary said.
A NASA study team settled on a shuttle-derived heavy-lift rocket in a preliminary report released in January. The design outlined then was built around a 27.5-foot diameter core stage with five hydrogen-fueled engines based on the space shuttle main engine. The initial SLS design also included five-segment solid rocket boosters and an upper stage powered by a J-2X engine from the canceled Ares rocket program.
It will eventually be able to haul up to 130 metric tons of payload into low Earth orbit. Its purpose is to launch human crews on expeditions into deep space toward destinations like asteroids, Mars and the moon.
Congress mandated the rocket be ready to fly by 2016, but NASA says that schedule is impossible under the current budget.
Bolden told Congress he approved a final baseline design for the rocket in June. The decision won't be publicly announced until it receives a blessing from the White House, according to NASA officials.
Lawmakers charge the Obama administration is intentionally delaying the start of the new exploration program. NASA formally settled on the Orion spacecraft as the basis for the MPCV program in May, but there's no word on when the government will reveal its vision for the SLS.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., issued a subpoena in July for NASA to produce documents about the decision-making process on the design and implementation of the SLS. Rockefeller chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of NASA activities.
The House and Senate committees with responsibility for NASA have accused the Obama administration of dragging its feet on the SLS program. The NASA Authorization Act signed into law in October established the framework for a fresh space exploration strategy and required officials to issue a report on the heavy-lift rocket within 90 days.
NASA divulged the preliminary outcome of the SLS study in January, but the final report's release has been delayed from the spring until nearly fall.
In a July hearing with the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Bolden was grilled on the the status of the final SLS report.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, released a statement Friday saying she remained "very concerned about continuing delays" in moving forward with the heavy-lift rocket.
Calling for the immediate announcement of a formal decision on the SLS architecture, Hutchison argued many of the contractor layoffs from the space shuttle's retirement could have been averted if NASA had more promptly started development of the Space Launch System. The delay to wait for the Booz Allen Hamilton independent cost assessment cost 3,000 jobs, Hutchison said in a statement.
"We cannot delay in announcing the plan that can provide a focus and a purpose for workers that remain and for the industries that rely on our space program to survive," Hutchison said in the press release.
Five Republican senators representing Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana dispatched a letter to President Obama last week asking the Office of Management and Budget to "release its hold and approve the program."