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GAO Credits NASA For Improved Acquisition Performance, but Worries About SLS and Orion

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Apr-2014
Updated: 15-Apr-2014 06:14 PM

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave NASA credit today for improved cost and schedule performance in its major acquisition programs.  Nevertheless, it cited several programs that need continued monitoring.   GAO reviews NASA's major acquisition programs every year as requested by Congress.

GAO said that the portfolio of NASA projects it reviewed "saw cost and schedule growth that remains low compared to GAO's first review."  Not that every project is doing well, though.  

In all, GAO reviewed 19 programs spanning robotic and human spaceflight in its 104 page report.   It did not make any recommendations, but cited several programs that require continued monitoring.  One is the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2, ICESAT-2.  GAO said the cost of the satellite's single instrument -- Advanced Topographical Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) -- being developed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will grow by at least 15 percent and the spacecraft will miss its 2017 launch date.  GAO said that NASA traced the problem to immature systems engineering analysis and consequently replaced the project management team and added more expertise.

Among GAO's other top worries are the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs.

  • Space Launch System:   "Based on current budget estimates, program officials have expressed concern that the first launch in 2017 could be delayed." GAO says that the program will reach Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) this month (April 2014) and at that point NASA will establish cost, schedule and performance baselines for the initial (70- ton) version of the launch vehicle.  GAO highlights funding risks associated with the flat budget profile under which NASA plans to spend $6.8 billion between FY2014 and 2018, and calls the schedule "aggressive."   It also worries that two years after the program was established, "many of the SLS program contracts remain undefinitized."
  • Orion:  "The mass of the spacecraft remains a top program risk."  GAO says the spacecraft being designed to take humans beyond low Earth orbit aboard the SLS could be as much as 2,800 pounds overweight at launch for the first exploration mission (EM-1) in 2017.  The maximum lift-off mass for that mission is 73,500 pounds, GAO states.  The report also notes that the contract under which Lockheed Martin is developing Orion is valued at $11.6 billion through 2020.

Other programs that bear watching include:

  • James Webb Space Telescope:  "GAO's analysis of three subsystem schedules determined that the reliability of the project's integrated master schedule ... is questionable."   Today's report notes that GAO made the same conclusion last year.
  • Magnetosphere Multiscale (MMS) project:  "The project is tracking risks that cost reserves may be inadequate and that the project may overrun its cost baseline" due at least in part to a launch postponement from October 2014 to March 2015 caused by the October 2013 government shutdown.  GAO said the launch delay will cost about $39 million, thereby exceeding the cost estimate by $26 million.
  • Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA):  GAO makes no comment on the wisdom of mothballing SOFIA as proposed in the President's FY2015 budget request, but notes that project officials said that the "planned FY2015 budget is insufficient to prepare the observatory for storage."

GAO also provided a snapshot of the status of the three commercial crew competitors -- Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX.  According to the report,

  • Boeing has completed 17 of 20 (85 percent) milestones of which 6 were delayed from initially targeted dates;
  • Sierra Nevada has completed 8 of 13 (62 percent) milestones of which 1 was delayed; and
  • SpaceX has completed 13 of 17 (76 percent) milestones, of which 1 was delayed.

Overall, it reports that commercial crew program officials cite the following challenges: concern that the program will not be fully funded, reducing competition and thereby increasing costs of commercially available transportation capabilities; complications such as development of the system to allow the commercial vehicles to dock with the International Space Station, which could impact schedule; and "closing a risk related to Federal Aviation Administration licensing issues."

The other programs reviewed by GAO for this report are:

  • Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) earth observation mission, which was just launched
  • Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow On (GRACE FO), an Earth-orbiting mission to study the Earth's gravity field, scheduled for launch in 2017
  • Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSIGHT), a Mars mission scheduled for launch in 2016
  • Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Experiment Explorer (LADEE), which was launched last year and is just about to end its brief mission to the Moon
  • Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), launched last fall and due to arrive at Mars this summer
  • Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) earth observation mission, scheduled for launch this July
  • Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), an asteroid sample return mission scheduled for launch in 2016
  • Soil Moisture Active and Passive (SMAP) earth observation mission, scheduled for launch later this year
  • Solar Probe Plus heliophysics mission scheduled for launch in 2018
  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment
  • Surface Water and Topography (SWOT) earth observation mission, scheduled for launch in 2020
  • Tracking and Data Satellite Replenishment (the most recent, TDRS-L, was launched in January)

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