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GAO Finds Little To Cheer About in Annual Assessment of NASA’s Major Projects

GAO Finds Little To Cheer About in Annual Assessment of NASA’s Major Projects

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its 10th annual assessment of NASA’s major projects today.  It found that cost and schedule performance for NASA’s portfolio of major projects has deteriorated since last year and the average launch delays for projects in the portfolio are the highest since GAO began these assessments a decade ago.  In response, NASA said that looking over a longer period of time NASA’s cost and schedule performance has improved markedly since it instituted the Joint Cost and Confidence Level (JCL) policy in 2009.

Congress requires GAO to report each year on the status of selected large-scale NASA programs, projects and activities.

By GAO’s definition, NASA currently has 26 major projects, defined as having a life-cycle cost of $250 million or more.  The combined cost of those programs is $61 billion.

Last year, GAO gave NASA a mixed review.  It found that although cost and schedule performance for most of NASA’s portfolio continued to improve, two projects (the Mars InSight project and an update of the space communications network) had significant cost or schedule growth, while eight others, including the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft, were entering the phase of their development cycle where problems are most likely to occur.

The results this year are cautionary.  “The cost and schedule performance” of NASA’s major projects “has deteriorated, but the extent of cost deterioration is unknown” because NASA does not have a cost estimate for Orion.  Orion is “one of the largest projects in the portfolio” and NASA “expects cost growth.”

As for schedule, “the average launch delay for the portfolio was 12 months, the highest delay GAO has reported in its 10 years” of making these assessments.  GAO said the 12-month average delay is up from 7 months in last year’s assessment.

Further, NASA faces the risk of more cost and schedule growth because of “new, large, complex projects that will enter the portfolio and expensive projects remaining the portfolio longer than expected.”  Europa Clipper, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and Europa Lander are cited as examples of those future large, complex projects.  GAO did give NASA credit for putting processes in place to control the costs of Europa Clipper and WFIRST.

GAO identified nine existing projects as the biggest contributors to the poor cost and schedule performance:  SLS, Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) cited in the 2017 report, Mars 2020, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), ICESat-2, NISAR, ICON, and GRACE-FO (GRACE-Follow On).

It broke those down into three categories: projects where technical challenges were compounded by risky programmatic decisions (SLS, EGS, SGSS, and Mars 2020); those where delays were due to technical challenges during integration and test (JWST and ICESat-2); and those that were due to factors outside of the projects’ control (NISAR, ICON, and GRACE-FO).

The 127-page report goes into details about each of the 26 projects and GAO’s assessment of the challenges that have occurred and may occur in the future, including workforce issues.  GAO observed, for example, that 56 percent of NASA’s workforce is 50 years old or more, which it says has both positive and negative effects.

The 26 projects GAO assessed for this year’s report are the following:

  • Commercial Crew
  • Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART)
  • Europa Clipper
  • Exploration Ground Systems
  • Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE-FO)
  • Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2)
  • Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight)
  • Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON)
  • James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)
  • Landsat 9
  • Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD)
  • Low Boom Flight Demonstrator
  • Lucy
  • Mars 2020
  • NASA ISRO — Synthetic Aperture Radar
  • Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle
  • Parker Solar Probe
  • Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE)
  • Psyche
  • Radiation Budget Instrument
  • Restore-L
  • Space Launch System (SLS)
  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS)
  • Surface Water and Topography Experiment (SWOT)
  • Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)
  • Wide-Field Infrared Survey Satellite (WFIRST)

In its response to the report (published an as appendix), NASA pointed out that its cost and schedule performance has improve considerably since it implemented its JCL policy.  “When taken in aggregate, NASA’s cost and schedule performance has markedly improved, moving from 45 percent average development cost growth against established baselines in the pre-cost confidence level era in the early 2000s, to less than 2 percent average development growth since the advent” of JCL.

NASA also pointed out that GAO has expanded the scope of the projects it is assessing to include technology demonstrations, specifically  LCRD and Restore-L.  The purpose of those projects is to mature technologies to Technology Readiness Level-6 (TRL-6) so the technologies will not be at TRL-6 at the time of the project’s Preliminary Design Review (PDR) as is expected for other projects.  “NASA looks forward to working with the GAO to ensure a common understanding of the ways our approach to these types of projects” differs from the others.

GAO responded that LCRD and Restore-L were included because they meet the criterion of costing $250 million or more and both projects plan to mature their technologies to TRL-6 before launch and therefore are susceptible to the same technical risks that could lead to cost growth and schedule delays.

The report is available on GAO’s website.

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