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Software woes keep NASA's new crewed missions grounded

Space Launch System and Orion Crew Vehicle won't lift off for planned 2018 test flight

The United States Government Accountability Office has found that NASA's return to crewed space exploration will likely not commence in 2018, as planned, and will probably slip into 2019. And familiar technology integration challenges are partly to blame.

The Office on Thursday published a Report to Congressional Committees (PDF) on NASA's Human Space Exploration program. That program currently concerns three projects: the Space Launch System rocket designed to be NASA's biggest and most capable, ever; the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that will ride atop the SLS and all the Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) required to get the mission flying.

NASA's current schedule calls for a first test mission, known as “EM-1”, to fly in November 2018 and send an uncrewed Orion capsule 70,000km beyond the moon. But the GAO reckons there's close to no chance of hitting that deadline.

The reason? There's a few: the report says NASA's not managed risk well, has had trouble procuring the services and hardware it needs, doesn't have cash on hand to fund blowouts and therefore can't fix things that require more resources than were available in the original budget. NASA's also been very optimistic: despite knowing that space projects often experience cost blowouts, the reserve budget for the SLS is just two per cent of the its total. That means that when problems come along like delays to Orion's flight software, funding isn't available to fix it until next year. Which won't leave enough time to get everything tested and onto the launchpad in November 2018.

And then there's what The Register imagines readers will find a rather familiar integration complication situation, as follows:

… each program must integrate its own hardware and software individually, after which EGS is responsible for integrating all three programs’ components into one effort at Kennedy Space Center.

As the GAO notes, “ Integration and testing is the phase where problems are most likely to be found, and the amount of potential problems is increased due to the two levels of integration—each inherently complex program must be integrated individually and then as an interdependent, combined enterprise.”

The European Space Agency's not helping, either. It was contracted to provide the “European Service Module” - Orion's in-flight power and propulsion unit. Due in April 2017, it's not expected to be ready until September 2017 or maybe even November … if suppliers deliver on time and the ESA stops finding dodgy welds and other defects.

We could go on but you get the idea: if this thing flies in 2018 it will be miraculous.

And that's a bit worrying because NASA's current plan calls for lessons learned during EM-1 to inform a crewed EM-2, which is itself supposed to be an important stepping stone to Mars. There's some reason to be optimistic in that EM-2 is planned to launch in 2023. But as the report shows, NASA's pretty good at eating time and missing deadlines, even if those deadlines are missed for decent reasons.

NASA was offered an early draft of the report and responded by saying that “maintaining the November 2018 launch readiness date is no longer in the best interest of the programs.” The space agency also told the GAO that “it is reassessing the launch readiness schedule and anticipates proposing a new date by September 2017.”

From which The Register concludes that this stuff is rocket science. And rocket science is hard. But also worth the wait, as today's pictures from Saturn's rings so amply demostrate. ®

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