NASA IG Criticizes NASA’s Management of VIPER and Multi-Mission Programs

NASA IG Criticizes NASA’s Management of VIPER and Multi-Mission Programs

NASA’s Inspector General released two reports in the past two days. The first addresses management of the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) Mission, a robotic rover that will search for water ice on the Moon. The second looks more broadly at how the agency manages programs that have more than one deliverable, particularly the Artemis program that will put astronauts back on the Moon.

VIPER is a NASA robotic rover that will be delivered to the lunar surface through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) procurement mechanism. Under CLPS, commercial companies are responsible for building robotic lunar landers and procuring launch services for them to take payloads for NASA and other customers to the Moon. NASA only provides payloads, like VIPER, and purchases the delivery services.

The agency has awarded six CLPS task orders so far to four companies: Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, Masten Space Systems, and Firefly. Two were supposed to launch in 2021, but slipped to 2022. At this moment, three of the six will launch this year and another three in 2023.

NASA officials repeatedly say they realize this approach carries risk and a 50-50 success rate for the program is acceptable. When awarding the VIPER contract to Astrobotic, NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen acknowledged that risk, but said he is confident Astrobotic will deliver.

Illustration of NASA’s VIPER robotic rover rolling off Astrobotic’s Griffin lander on the surface of the Moon. Credit: Astrobotic

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that NASA’s development of the VIPER rover and Astrobotic’s development of the Griffin lander appear to be on track to meet their November 2023 launch date, but is concerned about the lack of transparency about cost.

NASA asserts the life-cycle cost is $433.5 million, but that is only NASA’s cost to build the VIPER rover. The OIG argues it should include the cost for Astrobotic to build and launch the Griffin lander. That is currently estimated at $235.6 million, a cost that has grown since the contract was originally awarded for $199.5 million.

The OIG points out that NASA chose not to use two project oversight tools employed on other science programs, the Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) analysis and Earned Value Management, for this mission, calling it a “missed opportunity” that means “NASA does not have full visibility into the risks and their potential costs to the VIPER mission.”

NASA modified its usual acquisition and management approaches for the CLPS initiative so Astrobotic would assume the risk of completing its portion of the overall mission, own and control lander designs, and choose the launch provider. While this creates opportunities to reduce cost by collaborating with commercial entities, the Agency and Astrobotic each assume significant risks with the VIPER mission, which carries higher costs, criticality, and schedule risks compared to other current CLPS task orders


Finally, NASA leadership has promoted the benefits of Agency project oversight tools, specifically the Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) analysis that generates a statistical representation of the likelihood a project will achieve its objectives within budget and on time and Earned Value Management (EVM) that assesses project performance through the integration of technical scope with schedule and cost objectives. NASA is managing the VIPER mission in accordance with NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 7120.8 for research and technology programs and projects, which does not require a JCL or EVM. In an effort to streamline processes and because NPR 7210.8 does not require it, the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) choose [sic] not to employ either oversight tool for VIPER. We believe that this was a missed opportunity to help establish the project’s cost estimate with a comprehensive JCL and monitor project cost and schedule performance using EVM. Failing to use these tools means NASA does not have full visibility into the risks and their potential costs to the VIPER mission.

The second OIG report, NASA’s Cost Estimating and Reporting Practices for Multi-Mission Programs, looked at how NASA develops life-cycle cost estimates for other programs that have multiple deliverables, particularly the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon and someday go to Mars.

The Space Launch System rocket with an Orion spacecraft, attached to Mobile Launcher-1, travelling aboard the craweler-transporter from Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Complex 39-B, March 17, 2022. NASA manages SLS (the orange core stage, plus two white Solid Rocket Boosters and white upper stage), the white Orion spacecraft at the top, and Exploration Ground Systems (including the Mobile Launcher and crawler-transporter) as separate programs. Photo credit: NASA

NASA does not manage Artemis as a single program. Instead, it is composed of three separately-managed programs for developing the Space Launch System rocket, the Orion crew spacecraft, and associated Exploration Ground Systems.

The OIG has complained in the past about this approach and the fact that each program has its own cost estimate for different, limited periods of time. The cost estimate NASA uses for SLS is only through the first launch, for example, while the Orion estimate is for the first two launches. There are no estimates for missions beyond that, such as Artemis III, the mission that will return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2025.

This report reiterates that concern, saying that NASA and its stakeholders in the Administration and Congress do not have complete information “to make fully informed funding decisions,” but goes further, looking at how the agency manages “multi-mission” programs more broadly.

It is especially critical of a recent update of NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 7120.5F, NASA Space Flight Program and Program Management Requirements policy.  The OIG found that instead of fixing problems, the update “formalized known deficienies as acceptable management practices.”

Rather than resolving the major shortcomings with the Agency’s cost estimating and reporting practices, the recent policy amendments formalized known deficiencies as acceptable management practices. NASA had previously stated that it intended to establish new policies and procedures that would provide additional transparency for major programs with multiple deliverables and unspecified end points. Instead, it codified its poor cost estimating and reporting practices in a new policy that fails to comply with Title 51 of the United States Code, which requires the Agency to annually provide an estimate of the lifecycle cost for major programs, with a detailed breakout of the development cost and program reserves as well as an estimate of the annual costs until development is completed. The policy also weakens NASA’s ability to account for some risks in programs consisting of multiple projects, a situation that may affect cost and schedule if risks are unidentified in the estimates. Furthermore, the revised policy will not adequately address several open NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendations regarding incomplete and missing cost estimates and the corresponding baseline commitments for programs supporting Artemis missions.

Congress, NASA OIG, and GAO have identified longstanding problems with the completeness and credibility of NASA’s life-cycle cost estimates for major acquisitions. Ultimately, NASA is not providing full visibility into its investments as it begins a multi-decade initiative to transport humans to Mars at a cost that could easily reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Because the programs that support these exploration missions are still in their early development stages, it is critical that NASA establish credible and complete cost and schedule estimates.

The OIG made a number of recommendations in each report. Letters from NASA officials responding to the recommendations are published as appendices to the reports. They agree with some, but not others.

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