Accepting a task to perform a fast-track engine test prior to fully understanding its risks and challenges led to cost and schedule issues.
In February 2003, the White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) Propulsion Test Office accepted a task authorized through a Space Act Agreement to perform a rocket engine test for a private company by July 2003. While there were no real technical issues associated with the testing to be performed, there were certain aspects of the test program that were slightly different than the majority of testing performed at WSTF. The differences included high propellant inlet pressures, very short-duration firing pulse widths, and high accuracy propellant flowrate measurements for the short-duration firings.
The technical challenges associated with the test program drove design and fabrication of additional test systems to support the program, mainly propellant delivery systems that operated at pressures higher than typically used at WSTF as well as incorporation of accurate flow measurement devices using technology also not typically used at WSTF. Compounding the technical challenges were other issues such as heavy workload of NASA and contractor project managers, a short timeframe in which to complete testing in order to not impact other tests in the area, and a new and relatively inexperienced staff of project engineers.
Cost and schedule for design, fabrication and checkout were greatly underestimated. The project was successful in terms of completing the testing and delivering the requested data to the customer, but the project was significantly over budget.