A September 28 House Science Committee oversight hearing on development
of NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) demonstrated that the space
agency and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) do not see eye-to-eye
on the least risky and most cost-effective way to develop the vehicle.
The CEV, now named "Orion," is part of President Bush's Vision
for Space Exploration and is intended as a replacement for the space
As reported in FYI
#103, the GAO issued a July 2006 report noting that NASA's outyear
budget projections show major shortfalls for the exploration program
in some future years. GAO also contended that, in its acquisition strategy
for the CEV, NASA was planning to commit the government to a long-term
contract without sufficient knowledge of program requirements, design
and cost, a move that the report said "places the project at risk
of significant cost overruns, schedule delays and performance shortfalls."
NASA did not entirely concur with this assessment, and at the end of
August it awarded a long-term contract for CEV development and testing
to Lockheed Martin Corporation. However, based on discussions with GAO,
it modified its prior acquisition plan by making the production and
sustainment of operational vehicles optional to the contract. GAO has
also made previous recommendations regarding establishing criteria for
key decision points; NASA has agreed to implement those recommendations
but has not yet fully done so.
Noting that this would likely be his last hearing on NASA, retiring
Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) remarked that the
purpose of the hearing was not to "rehash" the contract award,
but to determine what additional steps NASA should be taking and how
Congress should conduct oversight in order to ensure the project's success.
Both he and Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) stated that they
did not want the exploration program to damage NASA's other activities.
Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO), Ranking Member of the Space and Aeronautics
Subcommittee, spoke for all members present when he said, "all
of us want NASA's CEV program to succeed."
"It's time for NASA to put down the viewgraphs and get its hands
dirty," declared Scott Horowitz, NASA Associate Administrator for
the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. He said the agency took
GAO's concerns "quite seriously," and that their management
approach now incorporated GAO's recommendations by making the longest-term
aspects of the CEV contract optional "to preserve flexibility."
NASA's decision to use mainly proven, off-the-shelf technologies, he
added, increased its knowledge base and would help to eliminate project
Allen Li, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management at GAO, highlighted
four concerns GAO has expressed about the CEV project: NASA does not
have enough information at this time to have awarded a long-term contract;
NASA's budget projections show substantial funding shortfalls for the
exploration program in many years; NASA's acquisition strategy for the
CEV still contains too much risk, even after modifications based on
GAO's recommendations; and NASA has agreed, but not yet acted, to implement
additional GAO suggestions to put in place reviews and progress-measurement
criteria at crucial project decision points. Li found NASA's modifications
to the CEV acquisition strategy "a step in the right direction,"
but concluded that NASA "would be well-served by fully implementing
To the question of how Congress should exercise its oversight responsibilities,
Li pointed out that the 2005 NASA Authorization Act gave Congress additional
oversight tools it did not have before. Horowitz concurred, noting that
the agency now must provide mandatory cost and progress reports to Congress
on a timely basis, and he promised to "go above and beyond"
with regular communications and visits to congressional offices.
Remarking that NASA seemed very confident of its ability to complete
the CEV on time and on budget, Gordon asked if the agency would consider
a formal cost cap; Horowitz said he was already operating under a cost
cap by being required to make the project fit within NASA's budget projections.
If the costs escalated, Gordon asked, from where would NASA find additional
money? "Everything has to come out of my exploration budget,"
Horowitz responded, and if costs grew out of control, the only thing
that could slip was the schedule, which he said would result in increased
costs in the long run. He also cautioned that unstable appropriations
from Congress would be "guaranteed to drive costs higher."
One of GAO's suggestions, Gordon continued, was that Congress consider
limiting funding for the CEV to only those activities necessary for
successful completion of the preliminary design review, expected in
the summer of 2008. Horowitz argued that short-funding the CEV in the
near term "will guarantee to delay" the project and ultimately
make it more expensive, but Li countered that there should be no connection
between the funding of separate phases of acquisition. If NASA chooses
to rush into long-term commitments with insufficient information, he
warned, it would be a case of "pay me now or pay me later."
Having additional knowledge, he said, had the potential to reduce costs
in future years. "I think past history has shown," he said,
that "if you don't have that knowledge, it will come bak to bite
While Horowitz professed to a great deal of confidence that, based
on using known technologies, NASA would meet its time and budget constraints,
Li warned that "the big challenge is going to be integration"
of components that have not necessarily been used together before, as
well as reducing component size.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) applauded NASA for choosing to use proven
technologies, but wanted to hear that the agency was reducing other,
lower-priority programs in order to take on the exploration challenge.
Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) disagreed, saying the funding constraints were
due to Congress's "wanting more than it's willing to pay for."
Pointing to NASA's cuts to aeronautics research at what he said was
a crucial time for revamping the air-traffic control system, and reductions
to small robotic missions, he criticized Congress for "having a
bigger wish list than their pocketbook."