The Inspector General of NASA released a detailed report Thursday examining the time and money that the space agency has spent developing its Orion spacecraft. This is the vehicle that NASA wants to use to fly its astronauts to and from lunar orbit as part of the Artemis program.
Since NASA placed its first order for Orion in August 2006, NASA has reportedly spent $ 16.7 billion on Orion’s development, which is about $ 1.1 billion a year. NASA paid the lion’s share of these funds to Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the development of the Orion capsule. For this record, the report does not include funding for the large Orion service module built and deployed by the European Space Agency.
Most Lockheed rewards were awarded under a “cost-plus” contract structure, in which NASA Lockheed must reimburse all eligible costs and also pay the related premium and incentive fees. Despite significant cost increases and schedule delays, Lockheed reportedly received almost all available premium fees. NASA General Inspector Paul Martin found these premium fees exaggerated.
He writes that the agency’s contract with Lockheed for Orion: “We believe that this affects the performance of the contractor by providing the contractor with the opportunity to earn previously unsuccessful award fees at the end of a final fee period. We charge at least: NASA paid Lockheed at least $ 27.8 million in additional premium fees throughout the development for the performance evaluations it had received, while the Orion program experienced significant cost increases and schedule delays. “
A long story
Orion has a long, somewhat tortured history, and some of the delays are due to changing requirements. During its development over the past 15 years, the vehicle has been asked to perform various tasks, including flying astronauts to the moon and an asteroid, and driving astronauts to the International Space Station. In 2010, when the program was behind schedule and over budget, President Obama tried to cancel it. But Congress pushed back these efforts and ultimately reinstated them. NASA’s current administrator, Jim Bridenstine, has inherited the Orion program and is trying to make the most of it as part of NASA’s Artemis Moon initiative.
It is currently planned that Orion will conduct a test flight on a Space Launch System rocket in late 2021 or 2022 and that the crew will be on an Apollo 8-like mission around the moon in 2023 at the earliest. At this point, the spacecraft will do so for nearly two decades in development and have cost the space agency more than $ 20 billion.
Two decades are a long time to develop a crewed spaceship. In a comparable period from 1961 to 1981, NASA made its debut with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules, the lunar module and the Space Shuttle, no less than five spacecraft carried by humans.
The new report comes from NASA because it tried to exclude Orion’s past costs when accounting for the program. This exclusion, the report said, “has affected the overall transparency of the overall cost of the vehicle.”
Finally, the report also raises doubts as to whether NASA can control Orion’s costs when the space agency sends people back to the moon in the 2020s. “It is too early to determine how successful these efforts will be to make Orion more affordable as NASA looks on Artemis missions to the moon and beyond,” the report concludes.
This is quite important since the White House and Congress canceled the Apollo program in the early 1970s because its cost was too high for NASA to continue. Critics of NASA’s current Artemis approach, which finances Orion and the large space launch system under extra cost contracts, say that these efforts are doomed to failure as their spending is unsustainable in the long run.