In August, the Space Launch System Program (SLS) passed its Preliminary Design Review (PDR). The next major milestone for the program is Key Decision Point C (KDP-C).
If SLS passes this decision point, it will progress from the formulation phase to the implementation phase of the program. It is not known how the current government shutdown will affect the timing of KDP-C. Most NASA websites are not operating during the shutdown, nor are public affairs offices.
“Moving from formulation to implementation is a huge milestone,” said James Whalen, a systems engineering consultant who teaches systems engineering classes at NASA field centers. “While there is great variability among programs, only 15%-25% of the program funding is generally spent in Phase A and B. The big chunk of funding is spent in the implementation phase.” The overall SLS development cost has been estimated at $18 billion.
Phase A is the Concept and Technology Development phase. Phase B is the Preliminary Design and Technology Completion phase, where the SLS program currently sits. Implementation includes everything from Final Design and Fabrication (Phase C) to Program Closeout (phase F).
KDP-C is the last major go-no-go point in the program’s development life-cycle. Once NASA grants permission for SLS to proceed, it becomes far less likely that the program will be cancelled. A program that has reached the implementation phase, particularly if it has some political momentum, stands a much better chance of surviving, even if it goes over budget. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has repeatedly stated the centrality of SLS in the agency’s exploration plans, and SLS has received bipartisan support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Constellation, the predecessor to SLS, which was cancelled in 2010, never reached KDP-C or the implementation phase.
Once it passes KDP-C, a program can begin making major hardware purchases and committing funds to contracts. “You might do some of those buys in the formulation phase, particularly with long-lead items,” says Whalen, “but the bulk of it comes in the implementation phase. That’s the normal process, at least.”
The PDR, which was completed in late July, is the first step in the KDP-C process. The culmination is a review of the program by the Agency Program Management Council (APMC). That council is chaired by NASA’s Associate Administrator (AA), according to NASA Procedural Requirement (NPR) 7120.5E. The current NASA AA is Robert Lightfoot, the former director of the Marshal Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala., where the SLS program is managed.
Three key documents are prepared in advance of KDP-C: the Program Commitment Agreement (PCA), the Program Plan, and the lifecycle cost estimate. The PCA documents top-level program requirements such as program objectives, schedule, and time-phased cost plans. The Program Plan is an agreement between the Mission Directorate Associate Administrator, the SLS Program Manager, and participating NASA field center directors. It documents the program’s requirements, the implementation approach, and how the program interfaces with other programs.
William Gerstenmaier is the Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, which oversees the SLS program and is located at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Todd May is the SLS Program Manager at MSFC.
The lifecycle cost estimate “forms the basis of the Agency’s external commitment to OMB [the White House Office of Management and Budget] and Congress,” according to NPR 7120.5E. In essence, this estimate defines the budget for the rest of the SLS development. As part of this budget estimate, the program provides a resource-loaded schedule and a Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level, or JCL. The JCL is a measure of the likelihood that the program will meet its cost and schedule targets. NASA requires managers to plan their programs assuming a JCL rating of 70 percent, unless a different number is approved by the NASA AA.
The JCL rating and the adherence of the budget estimate to the requirements set by Congress (or NASA) can have a significant impact on whether a program moves beyond KDP-C. In June 2012, spacepolicyonline.com reported that NASA had decided to cancel the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small (GEMS) Explorer mission. The budget estimate for that program was 20-30 percent more than was acceptable, with a JCL rating of 50 percent. GEMS was not permitted to pass KDP-C.
However, such a fate will probably not befall SLS. “A program of SLS’s importance to U.S. space capability is not likely to be cancelled at KDP-C,” says Whalen. If the APMC has reasons for concern, they would more likely re-work the budget and program plan, and then give the authority to proceed to implementation.