NASA

GAO report offers good news, but also warnings, about performance of NASA programs

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released on Tuesday its annual assessment of “large-scale” NASA projects. The good news of the report was that NASA, by and large, is doing well in terms of cost and schedule performance of its major programs: an average cost growth of 3% and launch delay of 2.8 months for 14 selected programs in their implementation phase, compared to average cost growth of 3.9% and launch delay of 4.0 months in 2013. Those figures exclude the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST); when included, the average cost growth in the 2014 report rises to 37.8% and the average launch delay to 6.6 months given that large program’s major overruns. However, the averages with JWST included are still an improvement over 2013.

Prior to the report’s release, NASA officials had been emphasizing the good performance they were seeing on most of their missions. “More and more the last few years, our missions are coming in on schedule and on budget,” said Craig Tupper, director of the resources management division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), in a briefing to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) science committee last week. “That certainly helps us to maintain stability in the program.”

There are, though, a few problems with the portfolio of NASA programs. The GAO report flagged the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) mission, whose cost has increased by at least 15 percent. That’s triggered a review and replan of the mission, which will likely miss its planned May 2017 launch date. “That 556 number is going to go up a lot,” Tupper warned at the NAC meeting, referring to the original estimated development cost of the spacecraft of $556 million.

The problem with ICESat-2 is due to a “very challenging instrument development,” said Peg Luce, deputy director of the earth science division of NASA SMD, later at the same meeting. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which is developing the spacecraft’s sole instrument is putting the “cream of the crop in in-house instrument development” on the program to get the laser altimeter instrument on track. The revised plan for the mission will be presented to NASA’s Program Management Council at the end of May, she said.

Potentially bigger issues than the overrun on ICESat-2, through, are uncertainties about much larger programs. The GAO report notes that nearly three quarters of the overall budget for major programs currently belongs to only four programs: JWST, the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and Commercial Crew. “Any cost or schedule overrun on NASA’s largest, most complex projects could have a ripple effect on the portfolio and has the potential to postpone or even cancel altogether projects in earlier development stages,” the report warns.

The GAO is particularly concerned that, based on where these largest programs currently are, the risk for overruns is high. “JWST will soon enter integration and testing—the point at which cost growth and schedule delays are most likely,” the report states. “Additionally, there are questions about the realism of the SLS and Orion cost estimates.” SLS and Orion aren’t included in the cost and schedule figures above because the programs are still in their formulation phase, although NASA officials have stated that—at least for now—those programs remain on track.

34 comments to GAO report offers good news, but also warnings, about performance of NASA programs

  • Egad

    Also, (page 68)

    Over 2 years after being established as a program, many of the SLS program contracts remain undefinitized, placing the program at risk of unanticipated costs. Additionally, SLS cost baselines do not include the likely full costs of the SLS program.

    But such questions of cost will surely be clarified in the immediate future, because

    The program plans to reach Key Decision Point (KDP) -C in April 2014 and enter the implementation phase of the NASA acquisition life cycle. At that point, NASA will establish cost, schedule, and performance baselines for the initial version of the SLS, the 70-metric ton launch vehicle, through its first test flight, EM-1, in December 2017, plus 3 months for data analysis.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “But such questions of cost will surely be clarified in the immediate future, because…”

      Maybe, but not because of KDP-C. In last year’s GAO report on NASA’s large projects, SLS promised to “definitize all SLS contracts by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2013″ regardless of KDP-C. See end of p. 69 here:

      http://www.gao.gov/products/gao-13-276sp

      Another year has gone by and the SLS project still doesn’t know what it’s paying its contractors to deliver. This will not end well when the inevitable change orders come down. Might as well have the Treasury write the contractors blank checks now.

      Other MPCV/SLS issues in the 2014 GAO report on NASA large projects:

      – MPCV (the CM, SM, and LAS) is 2,800 pounds overweight for SLS’s maximum lift-off mass requirement. NASA is waiving the requirement for now. This is on top of the CM being 5,000 pounds overweight for reentry, as reported by GAO last year.

      – MPCV’s heat shield, and whether it can withstand reentry velocities from lunar trajectories, remains an issue, also as reported by GAO last year.

      – MPCV’s SM for EM-1 has slipped its PDR by 10 months, and there is no SM on contract for EM-2.

      – The current flat budget for MPCV is creating budget pressure beyond EM-1 as LAS, life support, and other subsystem developments and tests are deferred to meet the flat funding.

      – SLS’s core stage schedule is aggressive and threatens to slip EM-1 into 2018 if any technical issues are encountered.

      – SLS’s RS-25 engines will receive colder propellant than they did on STS. Instead of redesigning, heaters will be added, creating a new failure mode.

      – SLS’s SRBs require redesign to meet new structural loads not encountered on STS. (We’ve been to this dance before on Ares I.)

      – SLS’s iCPS is not steerable by astronauts, so NASA is waiving that safety requirement and replacing it with a manual shutdown.

      Nothing but programmatic and technical excellence all around on the agency’s two flagship projects.

      • – MPCV (the CM, SM, and LAS) is 2,800 pounds overweight for SLS’s maximum lift-off mass requirement. NASA is waiving the requirement for now.

        The real issue is that the scaled back SLS is underpowered. The Ares V configuration should be reinstated.

        – MPCV’s heat shield, and whether it can withstand reentry velocities from lunar trajectories, remains an issue, also as reported by GAO last year.

        I thought the lunar mission was out? Can’t fault the engineers for designing to the mission proclaimed by Obama.

        – MPCV’s SM for EM-1 has slipped its PDR by 10 months, and there is no SM on contract for EM-2.

        The time estimates were too rosy. NASA should fire its project managers.

        – SLS’s RS-25 engines will receive colder propellant than they did on STS. Instead of redesigning, heaters will be added, creating a new failure mode.

        I’d put it differently. There is a new success mode.

        – SLS’s SRBs require redesign to meet new structural loads not encountered on STS. (We’ve been to this dance before on Ares I.)

        Structural shmuctural, put ‘em to the torch!

        – SLS’s iCPS is not steerable by astronauts, so NASA is waiving that safety requirement and replacing it with a manual shutdown.

        Never known astronauts to have much success steering unguided hyper-sonic rockets by hand.

        Onward SLS!

        • Dark Blue Nine

          “The Ares V configuration should be reinstated.”

          Sure, what’s another $10 billion-plus taxpayer dollars and another decade-plus down the SLS toilet when we’re already flushing $9 billion for Block I and $11 billion for MPCV.

          “I thought the lunar mission was out?”

          EM-2 has been an Apollo 8 redo for years now. Don’t be so ignorant.

          “The time estimates were too rosy. NASA should fire its project managers.”

          ESA, not NASA, has been managing the SM for over a year now. Don’t be so ignorant.

          “I’d put it differently. There is a new success mode.”

          Every additional active system is a failure mode. Don’t be so ignorant.

          “Never known astronauts to have much success steering unguided hyper-sonic rockets by hand.”

          It’s NASA’s requirement. Don’t be so ignorant.

          “Structural shmuctural, put ‘em to the torch!

          Onward SLS!”

          Ignorance is bliss.

        • common sense

          >>>– MPCV’s heat shield, and whether it can withstand reentry velocities from lunar trajectories, remains an issue, also as >>>reported by GAO last year.
          >>>
          >>>I thought the lunar mission was out? Can’t fault the engineers for designing to the mission proclaimed by Obama.

          I will make an effort to explain hoping it goes through. The problem is with the heat shield material, primarily, but there are associated structural issues. But let’s stick with the material if I may say so myself. Lunar return velocity are such that heating comes not only from advection heating (the flow against the material) but also from radiation from the shock wave onto the heat shield. For LEO return only advection plays a role. For lunar return radiation prevails and is very poorly understood and simulated – a lot of uncertainties. Also unfortunately heating, advective and radiative, add up. Also advective heating is like velocity cubed times 1/sqrt(R) R being the radius of curvature of the heatshield while radiative heating is like velocity at the 8.5 power (!) time the radius of curvature. Lunar return velocity is like 36,000 ft/s, LEO like 25,000 ft/s. I’ll leave it to you to figure that a very slight difference in entry velocity results in huge difference in heating. Then there is the heat load which is the integrated over time heat rate, how long you subject your heat shield to heating which generally drives the thickness of your material.

          Still there?

          So why AVCOAT? Why not PICA? Well AVCOAT has already flown with Apollo even though we are not sure this current AVCOAT is the same as Apollo’s since all documentation had been destroyed. But it’s close. Problem is that it is very difficult to build an AVCOAT heat shield. PICA is fine except that it is a tiled heat shield which means you have to use gap fillers and those gap fillers exhibit ablation that is different from that of PICA – both AVCOAT and PICA (and gap fillers) ablate. So differential ablation means local protrusion and/or recession which in turns trip the boundary layer that reattaches elsewhere and generates locally augmented heating. In one word: nightmare.

          What about Dragon then for lunar return? I don’t think any one knows at this stage. Unless they already found a way to deal with differential ablation.

          Finally coming back from an asteroid may be at increased, compared with lunar, return velocity. Hence worse heating, heat loads, etc…

          So no. Nothing is solved. That I can tell anyway.

          Oh yeah, changing AVCOAT to PICA would be a nightmare. I believe PICA is lighter than AVCOAT – not sure though. But if it is then your center of gravity is moving away from the heat shield resulting in a more unstable vehicle – everything else being equal. So if Orion changes for PICA they pretty much have to go for another (at least one) design cycle to ensure you can fly the capsule…

          Still there?

          Yes? Well I am glad. And I hope it helps.

          Ah yes. One design cycle is equal to a ton of cash that NASA does not have.

          Quite simple actually.

          • Yawn. No US spacecraft will make a ballistic entry. If a single high speed entry from BEO is so physically problematic NASA will resort to a skipped entry, or aerobraking with more than one orbital pass. Does your faux-physical reasoning fail to take that into account?

            • Malmesbury

              The issue is nothing to do with ballistic entry. If you want to come back from the moon or beyond, you will be coming back very, very fast.

              Multi-pass re-entry has been ruled out by NASA in the past as too risky – if you get it wrong by a rather small amount you are in deep, unrecoverable sh&%.

              High speed re-entry is a known, solved problem – see Stardust.

              Orion simply doesn’t have a thick enough heat shield to return from beyond the moon. Due to weight issues, it may not be up to a lunar return either.

            • common sense

              I know it’s like talking to a wall but you have strong opinions on things you have zero understanding of. The problem I fear is that there are a lot of people just like you.

              Ballistic entry coming from LEO gives you anywhere from 10 to more Gs, coming from the Moon or elsewhere… Ballistic entry are abort entries. Go ask Soyuz. Anyway.

              The entry profile is and has always been called called a skip entry. But this is a concept that seems foreign to you. In what way does a skip entry reduce the entry interface velocity? A skip is merely there after you have done a first dip into the atmosphere at the problematic heat rates. And the duration of the skip influences the heat loads so yet again the mass of the heat shield.

              Aerobraking will not help you much – not with current technology as used on Orion – since as I was trying to explain to you the heat load ends up being much larger than on a direct skip entry. It would result on smaller heat rates and much larger heat loads. Again heat loads drive the thickness of your heat shield, hence mass.

              So getting there or still very difficult? Ah Cornell… Maybe it’s the street of the University you went to?

          • Malmesbury

            AVCOAT = 0.51g/cm3
            PICA = 0.27g/cc

            In addition PICA is more efficient as a heat shield material – so weight can be further reduced.

            PICA got tested at 12.9 km/s (the fastest reentry ever) for Stardust…..

            https://smartech.gatech.edu/handle/1853/26427 – states (ironically) that -

            “It is noted that the post-flight analysis of the Stardust heat shield is especially important since PICA is baselined for both the Orion (CEV) and Mars Science Laboratory vehicles.”

        • Malmesbury

          “– SLS’s RS-25 engines will receive colder propellant than they did on STS. Instead of redesigning, heaters will be added, creating a new failure mode.”

          ‘I’d put it differently. There is a new success mode.’

          Heating cryogens gives you some fun failure modes – BLEVE or bubbles in the liquids going into your turbo pumps.

      • So what happens if Orion is destroyed on re-entry this December during its initial test flight?

        That’s pretty much the death of SLS, because I’m sure even this pork-happy Congress wouldn’t appropriate another $10 billion and wait another ten years to fly the thing.

        Or would they?

        • Coastal Ron

          Stephen C. Smith said:

          because I’m sure even this pork-happy Congress wouldn’t appropriate another $10 billion and wait another ten years to fly the thing.

          Or would they?

          Let’s remember that the Orion/MPCV is a Lockheed Martin product, and Boeing is developing the SLS. If the Orion/MPCV falters, no doubt Boeing would mention that they have an LEO spacecraft just about ready to go, and for a small fee… ;-)

      • Egad


        In last year’s GAO report on NASA’s large projects, SLS promised to “definitize all SLS contracts by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2013″ regardless of KDP-C

        Yeah, and in that same report GAO noted,

        Report to Congressional Committees:
        April 2013:
        NASA: Assessments of Selected Large-Scale Projects:
        GAO-13-276SP:

        According to NASA officials, the agency is developing a tailored definition for SLS and MPCV life-cycle cost estimating since it is one of evolving capabilities on a continuum, not a traditional life cycle. Additionally, NASA officials stated that the full life-cycle costs of SLS and MPCV cannot be calculated because SLS and MPCV are really programs and not projects that have discrete start and endpoints. Thus, NASA is reporting the cost for attaining a certain level of capability and what it costs to fly each version of SLS and MPCV.

        If the KDP-C that (again surely) will appear in the next fortnight shows what that “tailored definition for SLS and MPCV life-cycle cost estimating” is, I’ll surely be interested.

  • vulture4

    Yes, it has often seemed that the organizations that should be evaluating actual performance of systems and programs in reality evaluate only documents.

    nasaspaceflight has an annual pole on support for the SLS in the Space Policy section. Surprisingly to me it is running two thirds in favor, though most of the actual comments are otherwise. Take a look.

  • Vladislaw

    There is only one decision left for the SLS/Orion trainwreck … who gets to put the fork in it..

  • Jim Muncy

    >>>MPCV (the CM, SM, and LAS) is 2,800 pounds overweight for SLS’s maximum lift-off mass requirement. NASA is waiving the requirement for now.

    Okay… someone has to explain this. The EM-1 version of SLS can loft 70 metric TONS, i.e. well over twice the weight of Orion + LAS, into LEO. I realize the goal is to send the Orion stack around the Moon. But how can Orion — without people — be too large for this mission.

    I presume that gets fixed when they take the weight out of Orion’s CM for the reentry.
    Assuming they can. This mission is 3.5 years away.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “Okay… someone has to explain this. The EM-1 version of SLS can loft 70 metric TONS, i.e. well over twice the weight of Orion + LAS, into LEO.”

      The “maximum lift-off mass requirement” for SLS for EM-1 is 73,500 pounds (not kilograms), which is a little over 33 metric tons. Some of that is margin — Block I can’t really launch 70 tons to LEO without using its payload mass margins. But most is the difference in SLS payload mass performance to LEO versus a lunar transfer orbit.

      There’s no LAS on EM-1, and the combined mass of MPCV’s CM and SM “wet” is supposed to be 29.2 metric tons. So the CM and SM are actually somewhere in the neighborhood of 5.1 metric tons or 15% overweight for EM-1. (33 metric tons minus 29.2 metric tons is 3.8 metric tons plus 2,800 pounds or 1.3 metric tons is 5.1 metric tons.)

      So for the crewed EM-2 mission, MPCV’s CM and SM have to come up with about 5 metric tons worth of mass savings plus another 7 metric tons (~16,000 pounds) of mass savings to add in the LAS plus some more mass savings for the fully kitted life support system. 12+ metric tons is 36% of the combined 33-ton mass of the CM and SM. No way the CM and SM can shave a third of their mass without starting over.

      Based on what’s emerging about MPCV’s mass issues, EM-2 can’t get there from here. It just won’t happen.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “I presume that gets fixed when they take the weight out of Orion’s CM for the reentry.”

      The CM is 5,000 pounds or 2.3 metric tons overweight for reentry. That’s a fraction (~20%) of what needs to come out of the CM and SM (12 metric tons) for EM-2.

      “Assuming they can. This mission is 3.5 years away.”

      Even if EM-1 can magically save a couple metric tons worth of heat shield mass for a reentry trajectory from lunar orbit using EFT-1 data from an Earth orbit reentry trajectory that only creates about 60% of the same heating, EM-2 is still a no-go mass-wise.

  • Marge

    Orion is too heavy for its own parachutes. From a safety standpoint it is not going to be certified as safe because safety of crew and vehicle will be an issue at impact.

    Orion also does not have the capability to return from greater than lunar distances. As mentioned, even lunar distances are suspect because mass to surface area ratio is a problem but asteroid missions are problematic and Mars missions cannot be performed with the spacecraft as designed.

    Bolden is blowing smoke when he says the spacecraft is going to Mars, as he did at a recent all-hands.

    These are not new issues. Bolden was fully aware of the same issues four years ago when he said at the time that Constellation was cancelled that the spacecraft and booster (Ares) issues stemmed from a series of very poorly defined requirements and poor design decisions.

    What is most remarkable is that many of the same people remain in charge even though they screwed the design from the start.

    • Coastal Ron

      Marge said:

      Bolden is blowing smoke when he says the spacecraft is going to Mars, as he did at a recent all-hands.

      Didn’t you see the disclaimer that accompanied his statement?

      *Assuming Congress continues this gravy train and funds a complete overhaul of the MPCV design*

      Does that help?

    • Orion is too heavy for its own parachutes.

      Yeah, just like Ares I-X would crash into the tower at launch, or would shake to pieces on ascent, couldn’t be guided because of its length, or… Lies, all. The fact is, Lockheed Martin is building a spacecraft this nation can be proud of despite the relentless negativism of the radical left.

      • Vladislaw

        It did damage the pad .. there is videos of the damage it did to the launch pad, and a second flight could not have taken place for quite a while afterwards.
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rdui3vLhP-U

      • Malmesbury

        Denial is not a river in Egypt. It is overweight. The people building it say so…

      • Coastal Ron

        amightywind said:

        Yeah, just like Ares I-X would crash into the tower at launch, or would shake to pieces on ascent, couldn’t be guided because of its length, or…

        All concerns that NASA itself had identified, and which the Ares I-X flight was to provide data about – that’s how science and engineering works.

        And NASA has publicly stated that they as yet don’t have a solution for the weight issue on Orion/MPCV, and that they will be fighting the weight issue up until the EM-2 flight. Jim Hillhouse of AmericaSpace himself asked NASA representatives that question at a press conference last year, as he is a HUGE SLS & Orion fan, yet he didn’t publish the response he got on his own publication. It’s OK if he ignores the weight issue, but it’s not OK for NASA to ignore the issue if peoples lives are at stake.

        I’m not sure you have the right priorities here…

  • Coastal Ron

    On page 10 of the GAO report there is an interesting graph called “Average Development Cost and Schedule Growth of Selected Major NASA Projects in Implementation Phase, Both Including and Excluding JWST“.

    When Bolden took over from Michael Griffin in 2009 the average launch delay was 11 months, and the average cost growth excluding the JWST was 12%.

    Five years later the average launch delay is 3 months, and the average cost growth excluding the JWST is 3%.

    Based on those facts I’d say that Bolden is doing a much better job of being an Administrator than Griffin was.

  • Marge

    DBN wrote Based on what’s emerging about MPCV’s mass issues, EM-2 can’t get there from here. It just won’t happen.

    I am guessing that the management associated with the “Orion” Program has been betting on cancellation and just surprised that it has not happened; well, Obama attempted to cancel it but Congress had something else to say about it.

    The real problem for NASA is not that they continue with Orion-they will have to do something drastic at some point or as DBN says it will not happen, but the real problem is that the entire senior hierarchy in human space flight, Gerstenmaier and his minions and the fair haired boy, Geyer are completely culpable; Geyer has been there from the start even with Constellation and yet not any effort to try and fix the problem. It does not lend a lot of confidence. I guess as long as we depend on others, Russians or Elon Musk, then we can get by.

    • Coastal Ron

      Marge said:

      …but the real problem is that the entire senior hierarchy in human space flight, Gerstenmaier and his minions…

      I can’t speak to the internal machinations at NASA, but from the outside I’ve always liked Gerstenmaier.

      Plus, if you keep in mind that what NASA says in public is in part dictated by what Congress has funded them to do, then NASA sometimes has to say stuff that normally wouldn’t make sense, but Congress doesn’t give them any options – and the SLS and MPCV are both good examples of that.

      • Marge

        I agree he is a really nice guy. But I am not sure what that has to do with doing a credible technical job.

        Gerstenmier has little actual experience-essentially none at all in hardware development. And he has worked behind the scenes to keep exactly the same people in place for many years.

        As many have commented here and elsewhere, and as Bolden has spoken about in the past, there are serious technical problems with Orion and yet no effort to correct them; instead they have gone with wishful thinking. They continue to waste billions of our (taxpayer) money, very scarce money at that since NASA is not rolling in abundant money, on a system that has serious problems.

        Gerstenmier was also one of the proponents of ending Shuttle as early as possible in order to divert money to Geyer and Constellation. More wishful thinking. We now see how that decision has turned out.

        • Coastal Ron

          Marge said:

          As many have commented here and elsewhere, and as Bolden has spoken about in the past, there are serious technical problems with Orion and yet no effort to correct them; instead they have gone with wishful thinking.

          Let me play devils advocate here, since inaction on the Orion is not a bad thing if the goal is to let the Orion die as quickly as possible.

          As we all know the Orion/MPCV is a holdover from the Constellation program, and that it was sized at that time to support a month-long mission to the surface of the Moon by a crew of four. That was the initial plan, but of course many problems with the carrier rocket (i.e. Ares I) caused redesigns, and the initial design was, as Michael Griffin put it, “Apollo on steroids” and not well suited to doing anything else in the future. In other words, a $8-10B 4-person capsule is not going to be the spacecraft we conquer space with.

          So what if it was going to take serious redesign in order to fix the Orion/MPCV, and that redesign would could naturally cost $Billions and take many years? And what if those additional funds would compete with funding for other spacecraft programs, like Commercial Crew – that are already underfunded, but that are mandatory for supporting the ISS? And the ISS is NASA’s #1 human spaceflight program right now according to the recent testimony of Administrator Bolden.

          I’d say it makes perfect sense for NASA to keep quiet for right now about the Orion so that they can have a clear message about fully funding the Commercial Crew program. And only when full funding is secured would they start talking about the problems with the Orion, which will naturally mandate a delay in the SLS program too.

          And if you want to go a little deeper into potential conspiracies, if NASA management knows that the SLS is unlikely to get enough funding for missions and payloads that will allow it to fly the at-least-once-per-year safe flight rate (stated recently by Gerstenmaier), they may figure that another Augustine-type review would be coming with the next President, and that the bad shape that Orion is in will help all concerned realize that the SLS & MPCV are not worth the money to continue. That instead investing in technology development (SpaceNews article from today) is the better route to future BEO HSF exploration (which many of us have been saying for years).

          From a political standpoint that would be the best time to do such a review, since if Congress hasn’t provided enough money for SLS payloads & missions by then, it’s too late to start operational flights by 2022.

          My $0.02

  • Malmesbury

    “Yes PICA is “better” but you have to tile the heat shield and the main issues are with the gap fillers.”

    I’m not sure that I would say “better” – the engineer in me says “lighter, more fragile”. To me everything has it’s up and downs – the question is, for a given application, what are the pluses and what are the minuses.

    In the case of Orion, it seems to me that an attempt to reduce risk by going with the known – AVCOAT, tractor LAS, Apollo shape scaled up etc has actually increased the combined risk of the design.

    The gap filler issues were solvable – NASA has been looking with great interest at recent testing :-)

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