GAO Warns of Worsening Costs and Schedule Delays at NASA

GAO Warns of Worsening Costs and Schedule Delays at NASA

In its 12th annual report assessing NASA’s major projects, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned today of more cost increases and schedule delays, especially for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.  Still, it gave NASA credit for taking actions to address its “chronic difficulty” in meeting cost and schedule targets, while cautioning that success will depend on “leadership commitment, accountability, and demonstrated progress.”

GAO assessed 24 major NASA projects in formulation or implementation with a life-cycle cost of $250 million or more. They cover the broad spectrum of NASA’s activities in space science, earth science, space technology, aeronautics, and human spaceflight.

Overall, GAO found that the cost performance for NASA’s projects has worsened over the past 3 years, while schedule delays have improved.  Since last year’s report, cost growth increased from 27.6 percent to approximately 31 percent, while schedule delays on average decreased slightly from 13 months to 12 months. GAO is not hopeful for the future, however.

Our analysis shows that NASA’s cost and schedule performance is expected to deteriorate as a result of several factors, including likely Artemis I delays and understated cost growth for the Orion and SLS programs. According to NASA officials, the partial government shutdown that occurred between December 2018 and January 2019 did not affect projects’ cost and schedule baselines, but these officials identified varying other effects including the use of cost and schedule reserves. Looking forward, programs that will be part of NASA’s plans to conduct a lunar landing in 2024 will begin to enter the portfolio and present additional cost and schedule risks as NASA works toward this aggressive target date. — GAO

GAO listed five programs with cost growth and schedule delays since its last assessment.

  • Orion crew spacecraft.  Development cost increase of $539.2 million “due to effects from the Artemis I uncrewed test flight’s schedule slipping and poor contractor performance.”
  • Space Launch System (SLS) and its associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS).  Combined development cost growth of $764.3 million due to “poor SLS program performance and schedule delays.”  GAO added that both programs are now estimating a launch readiness date of March 2021, a 9 month slip since GAO’s last review, and that date is under review.
  • Mars 2020 (now Mars Perseverance).  Development cost growth of $310.0 million due to “multiple development difficulties, delayed deliveries, and higher than anticipated procurement costs.”
  • Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). Development cost growth of $36.8 million due to “a slip in the launch readiness date of its host spacecraft … and unexpected work on a key component.”
  • Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON).  Cost growth of $7.2 million due to launch vehicle-related delays.

Conversely, two programs cost less than expected.

  • The Lucy mission to study the Trojan asteroids.  A reduction of $8 million in development cost because the launch vehicle cost less than anticipated.
  • NASA/Indian Space Research Organisation Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR).  A reduction of $20.6 million because reserves were not needed.  GAO notes that it previously reported that NISAR was experiencing $30 million in cost growth associated with plans to collect data of value to other agencies and the science community, and although these capabilities are still being developed, NASA no longer counts them as part of NISAR’s cost estimate because they were not included in the baseline plan.

GAO pointed out that the schedule for the Artemis program was still under review when it completed this report and that in an earlier study it found that SLS and Orion were under-reporting their costs. It recommended that NASA update these costs and NASA agreed, “but this effort is not yet complete.”

While the SLS and Orion programs have been underway for many years — SLS since FY2011 and Orion since FY2006 — and the subject of many GAO reports, other components of the Artemis program are new.  Four Artemis-related projects expected to meet the $250 million life-cycle threshold for inclusion in these GAO assessments will soon enter the implementation phase.  Three are for the Gateway in lunar orbit: the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), and Logistics. The fourth is the Human Landing System (HLS) to ferry crews from the Gateway to and from the surface.  NASA will announce the winners of the HLS contracts tomorrow.

GAO warns that these programs present cost and schedule risks. At the time of its review, GAO was especially concerned about the PPE.

PPE is derived from a design for the since-canceled Asteroid Redirect Mission and intended to be a spacecraft equipped with a high-power (50 kilowatt) Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) system that will allow the Gateway to change its orbit around the Moon to meet varying scientific and logistical needs. NASA is obtaining it through a Public-Private Partnership with Maxar Technologies. The fixed-price $375 million contract calls for Maxar to develop, launch and operate the PPE for one year, after which NASA may acquire it.  NASA’s SEP project at Glenn Research Center separately is developing technologies for the propulsion system.

According to GAO, NASA reported that the “contractor completing the development and qualification work has struggled with its performance.” In addition, there is a mismatch between the requirements for the PPE and those for Gateway because they were approved at different times. At the time of GAO’s review, NASA was considering whether it could accomplish the Gateway requirements with an existing lower-powered system.

Last month, Doug Loverro, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, revealed that NASA no longer considers the Gateway as “mandatory” to achieve the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon in 2024, the last year of a second Trump term if he is reelected.  It would be needed later for sustainable lunar exploration, but not in 2024. How NASA would accomplish the 2024 lunar landing without the Gateway, previously a sine qua non of the program’s architecture since the landers would be assembled and docked there, was not explained.  Tomorrow’s announcement of the HLS contracts may shed some light on that.

GAO did not make any recommendations in this report.  Instead, it referred to the number of recommendations it has made over the past 5 years on how NASA can improve acquisition, and credited NASA for implementing some of them “although 17 recommendations have not yet been fully addressed.”

In its response to the report (published in an appendix), NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk did not disagree with GAO’s findings. He did express concern, however, that the number of projects subject to these annual assessments using the current $250 million life-cycle criterion could reach 37 in the next cycle, compared to 24 this time.

NASA is concerned with this expansion and the associated demands it places on management and coordination of the audit. We may have to institute additional strategies going forward to phase in reviews on a more doable or realistic basis. … We want to work closely with GAO to identify any options for streamlining the process without sacrificing the net results: safe and efficiently managed programs. — NASA’s Steve Jurczyk

Cristina Chaplain, GAO.



Editor’s Note:  This is the last of these assessments that will be conducted under the leadership of Cristina Chaplain, Director, Contracting and National Security Acquisitions, who is retiring tomorrow. Cristina has led GAO’s audits of civil and national security space programs for decades with objectivity, rigor, and a keen understanding of the byzantine government acquisition process.  We wish her the very best in retirement, but her departure is a great loss for GAO, Congress, and the space community as a whole. Thank you for your dedicated government service, Cristina.


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