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.