GAO says NASA's Constellation program is in trouble

By Robert Block and Mark K. Matthews

The Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Constellation program — the successor to the aging space shuttle — faces critical problems and may never work as intended, according to a congressional report set for release Thursday.

The report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, ticks off a list of difficult issues, especially with the Ares I rocket, which it said is prone to violent shaking on liftoff and might not have enough power to reach orbit with a capsule full of astronauts.

In fact, according to GAO, the whole project is dogged by such "considerable unknowns" that it is doubtful whether NASA’s request for an additional $2 billion over the next two years will be enough to overcome design flaws and speed up its development for a first liftoff in 2015.


"We do not know yet whether the architecture and design solutions selected by NASA will work as intended," said the 20-page report, obtained Wednesday by the Orlando Sentinel. It will be presented Thursday at a congressional hearing that is taking a critical look at NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

The GAO identified several areas that could delay Constellation.

The Orion crew capsule is too heavy for Ares’ lifting capacity. "Both the Orion and Ares I vehicles have a history of weight and mass growth," the report says.

Ares is subject to excessive vibration, called thrust oscillation, which has the potential of shaking the spacecraft to pieces, killing anyone aboard. NASA claims to have a fix for this problem, which was previously reported.

So far, there’s no company capable of producing a heat shield big enough to protect the Orion capsule when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Proposals to use thermal tiles like the ones on the shuttle are still in the design stage.

Finally, "According to NASA, at this time, existing test facilities are insufficient to adequately test the Ares I and Orion system."

In effect, the report says, NASA has a design for the Constellation project — but as yet there’s no assurance that all the components will work as planned.

The criticism comes at a crucial time for the agency. NASA must finish the international space station before it retires the space shuttle fleet in 2010, while at the same time developing a new spacecraft that can go to the moon and possibly Mars. The pressures are proving difficult to manage.


The report and the hearing come two days after an announcement that more than 8,000 contract employees nationwide — including 6,400 at Kennedy Space Center — could lose their jobs when the shuttle era ends.

Several lawmakers have attacked NASA for not planning the transition better. Of particular concern is the five-year gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the first planned Ares launch in 2015. During that time, NASA will have to pay Russia to launch American astronauts to the space station.

Doubts over the viability of Ares and Orion, which are the two major components of the Constellation program, add to concerns by NASA supporters that the president who takes office in January could gut or abandon the project entirely. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, the leading Democratic candidate, has already questioned the need to keep the moon rocket program on track.

NASA insists that Constellation is on schedule, and agency leaders are expected to announce Thursday that they have developed a strategy for dealing with the Ares’ tendency to shake violently after launch. "We have a mitigation strategy," said Chris Shank, a special assistant to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

But according to an outline of Thursday’s hearing, by the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, enough doubts remain that that lawmakers plan to ask Richard Gilbrech, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration, about possible alternatives to the Ares rocket, including a shuttle-derived system known as Direct.

Developed independently of NASA but based on the agency’s designs from the 1980s, Direct would use the shuttle’s giant external fuel tank and two solid rocket boosters to blast a capsule — rather than a shuttle orbiter — into space.

Stephen Metschan, the CEO of TeamVision Corp., a software design company that is promoting the Direct option, said the project includes 30 former and current NASA contractors and engineers. It promises to shave billions of dollars off the Constellation development program because it would not require any changes to KSC launch facilities.

"It’s quicker, cheaper and safer. It’s everything that Ares is supposed to be," Metschan said.


Shank, however, said NASA looked at Direct in 2005 when it examined various proposals to get back to the moon and found Direct’s approach was costly and did not meet the needs of the program. "It was too much (power) to go to the station and too little (rocket) to get to the moon," he said.

NASA chief Griffin has said that the Constellation program’s difficulties mirror similar problems every developing spacecraft faces.

Roger Launius, a space historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum, said that Griffin was technically correct — but that he did not sell Constellation to Congress as a new rocket development program. "It was supposed to be just a way to re-use shuttle technology," he said.

It was originally supposed to use the shuttle’s main engine, a smaller fuel tank and its solid rocket boosters. But NASA decided to re-design the original two-stage rocket.

In its report, the GAO said that using fewer shuttle technologies is one reason why Ares and Orion are falling behind schedule and becoming more costly. NASA already has awarded $7 billion in Constellation contracts and could ultimately spend nearly $230 billion over two decades on the program, GAO estimated.

The GAO said NASA is driven by a desire to close the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and Ares first launch but questioned whether the timetable is achievable as "new technologies" raise the risk of further delays.

"NASA’s schedule leaves little room for the unexpected. If something goes wrong, with the development of Ares I or the Orion, the entire Constellation Program could be thrown off course and the return to human spaceflight delayed," it said.

The report added: "It is imperative that NASA be realistic and open about the progress it is making to be willing to make changes to the architecture and design if the technical problems can not be solved without overly compromising performance."


Thursday’s hearing is the first of several looking in the Constellation program.

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