NASA IG Warns on Europa Clipper, Lander Costs and Schedules

NASA IG Warns on Europa Clipper, Lander Costs and Schedules

NASA’s Inspector General (IG) warned today that the current launch dates for two missions to study Jupiter’s moon Europa are unrealistic despite the large sums of money allocated by Congress.  The Europa Clipper and Europa Lander missions are required by law to be launched in 2023 and 2025 on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), but that is unlikely to happen because of developmental and workforce challenges according to the IG report.

Artist’s illustration of Europa Clipper flying by Europa, with Jupiter in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some scientists believe there is a liquid ocean under Europa’s icy crust that might provide an environment for the development of microbial life.  Former Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee in the last two Congresses and was a member in prior years, was a Europa enthusiast and led the effort to add more than $1 billion to NASA’s budget to build two spacecraft to investigate the moon.

Europa Clipper will orbit Jupiter and make multiple fly-bys of Europa to take close up measurements and images.  Europa Lander will land on the moon’s surface.

The NASA IG report tallied how much money Congress added over the years that Culberson was on the subcommittee as a member or chair: $1.255 billion on top of what NASA requested, for a total of $2.040 billion through FY2019.

Culberson proudly pointed out when he was subcommittee chair that he put the language requiring the Europa missions into the law, not just report language, so it would be illegal for NASA not to proceed.  Nonetheless, although NASA is building Clipper, it remains reluctant to commit to the Lander and insists that it can save $700 million by launching Clipper on a commercial rocket instead of SLS.

Culberson no longer is in Congress (he is now a lobbyist), but the House Appropriations Committee remains strongly supportive of the missions.  It reiterated in the FY2020 CJS appropriations bill that cleared the full committee last week that both spacecraft be built and launched by SLS in 2023 and 2025 respectively.  The committee did not add money for Clipper, instead approving the requested $592.6 million.  It also did not provide any money for the Lander (none was requested) saying that the $195 million appropriated in FY2019 was sufficient to carry the project through FY2020.  It did state that it expects NASA to request the required funding in future years to meet the launch date.

The IG report, however, pours cold water on the schedule.  In the first place, it concludes that the version of SLS needed to launch Clipper is “unlikely” to be ready by 2023.  Next, even if substantial sums of money are invested in the Lander, the earliest the spacecraft will be ready is late 2026 and the upgraded version of SLS needed for that launch has a “highly uncertain launch readiness date.”

Among the factors cited as problematical for the two missions are —

  • the aggressive development schedule,
  • a stringent conflict of interest process during instrument selection that deprived the project of expert knowledge,
  • insufficient evaluation of cost and schedule challenges that led to project integration challenges and acceptance of overly optimistic instrument cost proposals, and
  • shortages in technical skilled staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is simultaneously working on several complex missions.

The IG also concluded that designing and developing the Lander and its instruments now, without first gaining knowledge about Europa’s surface from the Clipper mission, “will not provide the most optimal science results for the money spent.”  Also, the funding requirements could disrupt the balance of other projects in NASA’s planetary science portfolio.

The report makes 10 recommendations to NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen:

(1) evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements by project over the next 5 years; (2) reassess the Clipper JCL with launch vehicle risks for the Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, and SLS; (3) evaluate the impact to the Planetary Science Division budget portfolio if Clipper’s increased funding levels were disrupted; (4) continue to implement the instrument cost control plan; (5) reassess the Lander project’s timeline given resource availability; (6) evaluate the impact that starting Lander Phase-A, delaying the start date, or continuing Pre-phase A research under multiple funding scenarios would have on the entire planetary science portfolio; (7) consider requesting the NRC reexamine the Lander’s priority; and (8) coordinate with Congress and other stakeholders to develop achievable project timelines and corresponding funding levels to maintain a balanced science portfolio supportive of NRC priorities. We also recommended the Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate, in coordination with the Office of the General Counsel, reassess the process of isolating key project personnel from instrument selection. Finally, we recommended the JPL Director evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements, make staffing adjustments to the Clipper project as necessary, and reassess Lander commitments. — Inspector General Report on Management of NASA’s Europa Mission

NASA agreed with all but one — recommendation 2, which calls for reassessing the JCL with launch risks for two other rockets (Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy) in addition to SLS.

JCL — a Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level analysis — evaluates the likelihood that a project will meet its cost and schedule estimates.  It is intended to take account of all risks to a project, including launch cost and the risk of launch delay, for example.

NASA responded that Congress has directed that it use SLS for the missions so there is no point in assessing alternative launch vehicles.  The IG report parried that NASA’s response is inconsistent with the agency’s Cost Estimating Handbook.  The other nine recommendations are categorized as resolved and will be closed pending completion and verification of the correction actions.  This one is labeled unresolved pending further discussions with NASA.


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