Credit: NASA


The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a new space report, looking at NASA’s development of three programs to put astronauts into space and beyond low Earth orbit, eventually to Mars: the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System, and Exploration Ground Systems.

GAO notes that all 3 programs must work together.

Oversight challenges

The approach that NASA is using to integrate its three human spaceflight programs into one system ready for launch offers some benefits, “but it also introduces oversight challenges,” the report stresses.

To manage and integrate the three programs—the Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle; the Orion crew capsule; and supporting ground systems (EGS)—NASA’s Exploration Systems Development (ESD) organization is using a more streamlined approach than has been used with other programs, and officials GAO spoke with believe that this approach provides cost savings and greater efficiency.

NASA’s Space Launch System.
Credit: NASA

However, GAO found two key challenges to the approach:

  • The approach makes it difficult to assess progress against cost and schedule baselines. SLS and EGS are baselined only to the first test flight. In May 2014, GAO recommended that NASA baseline the programs’ cost and schedule beyond the first test flight. NASA has not implemented these recommendations nor does it plan to; hence, it is contractually obligating billions of dollars for capabilities for the second flight and beyond without establishing baselines necessary to measure program performance.
  • The approach has dual-hatted positions, with individuals in two programmatic engineering and safety roles also performing oversight of those areas. As the image below shows, this presents an environment of competing interests.

Cost, Schedule Pressures

“We found challenges in NASA’s approach to integrating these programs,” GAO reports. For example, the technical authorities for engineering and safety also have program roles that include managing resources. When technical authorities must also deal with cost and schedule pressures, it can potentially impair their independence, the report continues.

“The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found in 2003 that this type of tenuous balance between programmatic and technical pressures was a contributing factor to that Space Shuttle accident,” the GAO report adds.

Credit: NASA

Pathway to Mars

NASA is at the beginning of the path leading to human exploration of Mars, explains the GAO report. The first phase along that path, the integration of SLS, Orion, and EGS, is likely to set the stage “for the success or failure of the rest of the endeavor.”

Establishing a cost and schedule baseline for NASA’s second mission is an important initial step in understanding and gaining support for the costs of SLS, Orion, and EGS, not just for that one mission but for the Mars plan overall. NASA’s ongoing refusal to establish this baseline is short-sighted, GAO points out, because Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2) is part of a larger conversation about the affordability of a crewed mission to Mars.

“While later stages of the Mars mission are well in the future, getting to that point in time will require a funding commitment from the Congress and other stakeholders. Much of their willingness to make that commitment is likely to be based on the ability to assess the extent to which NASA has met prior goals within predicted cost and schedule targets,” the GAO report points out.


To access this GAO report — Integration Approach Presents Challenges to Oversight and Independence (GAO-18-28: Published: Oct 19, 2017), and NASA’s responses, go to:

Also, give a listen to this podcast that highlights the findings of the GAO report:

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