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Just as NASA is trying to win support for its Artemis Moon-by-2024 program, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) annual assessment of the agency’s programs concludes that cost and schedule performance “continues to deteriorate.”  It attributes the decline largely to problems with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.  The average launch delay across NASA’s major programs represents the largest schedule delay since GAO began this series of reports in 2009.

As required by Congress, every year GAO reports on the status of major NASA programs, projects and activities — those with a life-cycle cost of more than $250 million.  For 2019, it evaluated 24 projects in formulation or implementation.  They include science, human spaceflight, technology, aeronautics, and space networks.

GAO found that since its last report in May 2018, “cost growth has increased to 27.6 percent and the average launch delay is approximately 13 months, the largest schedule delay we have ever reported.”

The much-delayed JWST accounted for a lot of the growth in cost and schedule.  Last year, NASA had to delay JWST’s launch from October 2018 to March 2021 and add more than $800 million to the cost due to integration problems at the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman.  JWST is the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope and will study dark energy, dark matter and exoplanets.

NASA’s big new rocket, the Space Launch System, and the Orion crew spacecraft that will launch aboard it to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit also are major contributors to GAO’s somber assessment.

SLS prime contractor Boeing “underestimated both the complexity of core stage engine assembly and the time and manpower” needed.  The development cost grew by $1.4 billion and the schedule slipped beyond June 2020 as a result.

NASA’s updated cost estimate for Orion has a 5.6 percent development cost increase due to the delay in the first launch, contractor underperformance, and NASA-directed scope increases.  That estimate is only through the second Orion launch, Artemis-2, in September 2022. That will be the first Orion to carry a crew.  Lockheed Martin is the Orion prime contractor and  “Orion contractor estimates indicate that additional cost growth is likely” according to GAO.

Three other projects that experienced significant cost growth since GAO’s last assessment of these projects were:

  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS): $167.6 million increase to cover the period between the initial operational readiness review in September 2019 and the final acceptance review in November 2020;
  • Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON): $2.2 million due to issues with its Pegasus launch vehicle; and
  • Mars 2020: $37.7 million cost growth due to problems with the Sample and Caching Subsystem and SHERLOC instrument.

On a positive note, GAO reports that the Parker Solar Probe cost $40 million less than projected.

GAO points out that NASA is not requesting funding for two major projects that the Trump Administration wants to terminate even though Congress has rejected those proposals in the past:  the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) earth science spacecraft.  Even though they are not included in NASA’s budget, the agency is proceeding with them as directed by Congress and will require $3 billion over the next 5 years.

At the same time, NASA is beginning major new projects, like Artemis.

Consequently, NASA will have to “either increase its annual funding request for major projects or continue to make funding trades between projects as part of the annual budget request.”

“…NASA is currently managing a portfolio of programs that costs more than what its planned annual budget request can support, and this trend will continue, assuming its budget requests stay on the same trajectory. Our previous work on Department of Defense acquisitions shows that when agencies commit to more programs than resources can support, unhealthy competition for funding is created among programs. This situation can lead to inefficient funding adjustments, such as moving money from one program to another or deferring costs to the future.” — GAO

Yesterday, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (IG) released an audit of the Europa Clipper and Europa Lander missions that are in development.  They will investigate Jupiter’s moon Europa.  The IG cautioned that neither is likely to meet its launch date, set in law, of 2023 and 2025 respectively, in part due to workforce shortages at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where they are managed.

GAO similarly warned about workforce shortages for the Clipper project, which has been about 7 percent below planning levels since  February 2017.  Cost and schedule reserves also are below what was anticipated and a “cost exercise in preparation for the confirmation review indicated costs would increase above preliminary estimates….”

NASA is required by law to launch Clipper on SLS, but the agency has not made a final determination about which rocket it will use.  It argues it could save $700 million by using a commercial rocket instead.  NASA told GAO that if SLS is used, the project will be charged only the cost of a Delta IV Heavy launch and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (which manages the SLS program) will absorb the additional cost.

The 24 projects assessed by GAO are the following:

Formulation

  • Europa Clipper
  • Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP)
  • Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE)
  • Psyche
  • Restore-L
  • Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

Implementation

  • Commercial Crew Program
    • Boeing
    • SpaceX
  • Double Asteroid Redirect Mission
  • Exploration Ground Systems
  • Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESAT-2)
  • Ionosphere Connection Explorer (ICON)
  • Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight)
  • James Webb Space Telescope
  • Landsat 9
  • Low Boom Flight Demonstrator
  • Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD)
  • Lucy
  • Mars 2020
  • NASA-Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR)
  • Orion
  • Parker Solar Probe
  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS)
  • Space Launch System (SLS)
  • Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT)

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