Mars Needs Women — NASA Needs Everybody

Credit: American International Television

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In the 1967 film, Mars Needs Women, a team of martians invades Earth to kidnap women to help repopulate their dying species. Shot over two weeks on a minuscule budget and padded out with stock footage, the movie obtained cult status as one of those cinematic disasters that was so bad it was unintentionally hilarious.

A half century later, NASA finds itself in a not entirely dissimilar situation. Only this problem is not nearly as funny.

The space agency lacks sufficient personnel with the proper skill sets to undertake its complex missions to the moon, Mars and beyond. A number of key programs have been affected by the shortfall already.

NASA’s workforce is also aging. More than half the agency’s employees are 50 years and older, with one-fifth  currently eligible for retirement. Finding replacement workers with the right mix of skills is not always easy as NASA faces increased competition from a growing commercial space sector.

The space agency is addressing these challenges, but it’s too early to tell how successful these efforts will be, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

(more…)

Launch Delays Blessing in Disguise for GRACE-FO Mission

GRACE-FO spacecraft (Credit: Airbus Defense and Space)

A German-American science mission scheduled to launch this week is running nine months behind schedule due to issues with launch vehicles. However, the delays turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the project, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

The twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) satellites are set to launch on Tuesday at 12:47:58 p.m. PDT (3:47:58 p.m. EDT; 1947:58 GMT) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch will be webcast at www.nasa.gov and www.spacex.com.

(more…)

GAO: Launch Vehicle Problems Caused Delay in NASA Science Satellite

ICON spacecraft (Credit: NASA)

Problems with its launch vehicle and range schedule conflicts have caused a year-long in the launch of a new NASA spacecraft that will study the Earth’s ionosphere, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

The June 2017 launch date for the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite was delayed after two of the three stages of the Pegasus XL’s launch vehicle were involved in a transport accident, the GAO found. The stages were returned to Orbital ATK’s facility for inspection and testing, but no damage was found.

(more…)

GAO_ ICESat-2 Mission Plagued by Laser Failures on Ground

This image shows the ATLAS instrument inside a Goddard cleanroom where the instrument was assembled. (Credits: NASA/D. McCallum)

Problems with lasers have caused a 17-month delay in the launch of a satellite that will measure changes in polar ice-sheet mass and elevation, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

Two lasers designed for use aboard the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) failed during ground testing due to cracked crystal, the report stated. The lasers have been repaired and will be used for the $1 billion mission. Only one laser is needed for mission success; the other one is a backup in case of the failure of the primary laser.

(more…)

With Dragon 2 Still Unfinished, Musk Rolls Out an Even More Ambitious Plan

Dragon Version 2. (Credit: SpaceX)

When on May 29, 2014, Elon Musk unveiled the Dragon 2 spacecraft at a gala ceremony at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., the future of American human spaceflight seemed assured and tantalizingly close.

By 2017, the new spacecraft would begin making crewed flights to the International Space Station, restoring a capability that had ended with the last space shuttle mission in 2011. NASA’s dependence on  Russian Soyuz spacecraft would come to an end.

Four years after its unveiling, Dragon 2 is still months away from making an automated flight test to the space station. A test flight with astronauts aboard might not occur until next year. The Government Accountability Office believes additional delays could push certification of the spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts on a commercial basis to December 2019. (Certification of Boeing’s crew vehicle might not occur until February 2020).

It’s good to keep all this in mind as Musk prepares to unveil his latest transportation plan this evening. At 7 p.m. PDT, Musk will hold a town-hall style meeting in Los Angeles to discuss plans by The Boring Company for tunneling under the city. The event will be webcast at https://www.boringcompany.com/.

Musk might have given a preview of the session on Twitter this week when he made a connection between his tunneling work and the mega rocket/spaceship that he is designing to render Dragon 2 and its Falcon 9 booster obsolete.

The spaceport in question is apparently the offshore platform where passengers will board the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), which Musk says will be capable of going anywhere in the world in about 30 minutes. The rocket is also being designed to launch satellites and transport people and cargo to the moon and Mars.

It sounds as ambitious as anything Musk has attempted to date. If the past is any guide, his estimates on cost and schedules will be extremely optimistic.

GAO: James Webb Space Telescope Keeps Slipping Into the Future

Artist’s impression of James Webb Space Telescope. (Credit; NASA)

NASA’s massive James Webb Space Telescope continues to pile up cost overruns and schedule delays as it prepares to exceed the $8 billion cap placed on the program by Congress.

“The project and observatory contractor significantly underestimated the time required to complete integration and test work on the spacecraft element,” according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Execution of spacecraft integration and test tasks was much slower than planned due to a variety of challenges including complexity of work and reach and access limitations on flight hardware.

(more…)

GAO: Laser Communications Mission Delayed by Funding, Redesign Issues

Laser Communications Relay Demonstration satellite (Credit: NASA)

Funding shortfalls and technical challenges have caused a nearly two-year delay in the launch of NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) mission, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

“LCRD entered the implementation phase in April 2017 and formally established its cost and schedule baselines of $262.7 million to launch by November 2019, which is $23.4 million higher and 23 months later than the preliminary cost estimate,” the report stated.

(more…)

Costs Rise for NASA’s Space Network Ground Segment Update

Credit: NASA

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s program to upgrade its space communications network has become more expensive even as the scope of the effort has shrunk, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

“Since the 2015 rebaseline, however, the project’s total costs increased by at least $112.9 million, from $1,207.9 million to $1,320.8 million, even as the scope decreased from upgrading nine terminals at three Space Network sites to six terminals at one site,” the report stated.

(more…)

GAO: SLS Making Progress, Major Milestones Lie Ahead

Space Launch System with Orion capsule. (Credit: NASA)

When Congress insisted that NASA build the Space Launch System (SLS) some years back, the argument was simple: just adapt all this technology  from the space shuttle program using the workers and infrastructure that already exist to develop a new heavy-lift booster.

It all sounded deceptively simple — and deceptive it was. NASA and its contractors soon ran into a problem that affects many such projects: it’s often easier to build something from scratch than to modify systems that already exist. And there you have the problem with the SLS program in a nutshell.

(more…)

GAO: Landsat 9 Program in Good Shape

Landsat 8 (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s Landsat 9 program is in good shape and on track for a launch as early as December 2020, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

The positive assessment makes the $885 million Earth observation satellite a rarity among the major NASA projects that GAO evaluated in its annual assessment. The government watchdog found that most of the programs are suffering cost overruns or schedule delays.

(more…)

GAO: NASA’s Low Boom Flight Demonstrator Moving Forward

This rendering shows the Lockheed Martin future supersonic advanced concept featuring two engines under the wings and one on top of the fuselage (not visible in this image).

NASA and contractor Lockheed Martin are moving toward a preliminary design review this summer of an ambitious plan to build an experimental aircraft that could help make overland supersonic passenger flights possible.

The Low Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD) project is attempting to advance beyond the old Concorde airplanes, which was restricted to supersonic flights over water because of the loud sonic boom they made.

(more…)

GAO: Mars 2020 Mission on Track But Faces Technical, Schedule Problems

Artist’s concept of the Mars Science Laboratory entry into the Martian atmosphere. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is facing a number of technical challenges, but space agency officials say it is on track for launch two years from now, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

“In commenting on a draft of this assessment, Mars 2020 project officials stated the project matured all its new technologies to the appropriate level by critical design review,” the report stated. “Further, officials stated the project had backup technologies but none were required. Officials also stated the project has accommodated schedule delays within available schedule reserves and continues to maintain robust schedule reserve along the critical path.”

(more…)

GAO: Orion Program Plagued by Delays, Cost Overruns

NASA’s Orion with the European Service Module (Credit: ESA–D. Ducros)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Cost overruns and schedule delays continue to plague NASA’s Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

NASA expects the Orion program to exceed its $11.28 billion baseline budget, which covers expenditures through the Exploration Mission-2 mission, the report stated. The space agency expects to complete a new cost estimate by June.

(more…)

GAO Finds Concerns About Structural Integrity of SLS Mobile Launcher

Mobile crawler transporter (Credit: NASA)

Updated May 5 at 12:53 p.m. PDT with information about funding for a second Mobile Launcher.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

There are “emerging concerns about the structural integrity of the Mobile Launcher’s base” from which NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft will lift off, according to a new government assessment.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that “loads models have indicated low stress margins in critical locations in the Mobile Launcher base. The program attributed this issue to an error in their model.

(more…)

NASA’s Major Project Costs & Schedule Performance Deteriorated in 2018

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

What GAO Found

The cost and schedule performance of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) portfolio of major projects has deteriorated, but the extent of cost performance deterioration is unknown. NASA expects cost growth for the Orion crew capsule—one of the largest projects in the portfolio—but does not have a current cost estimate. In addition, the average launch delay for the portfolio was 12 months, the highest delay GAO has reported in its 10 years of assessing major NASA projects (see figure below).

The deterioration in portfolio performance was the result of 9 of the 17 projects in development experiencing cost or schedule growth.

(more…)