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GAO Gives NASA Mixed Results for Management of Major Projects

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-May-2017
Updated: 16-May-2017 11:20 PM

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave NASA mixed results in its annual review of the agency's major projects.  Although cost and schedule performance for most of NASA's portfolio continues to improve, two projects -- InSight and an update of the space communications network -- have significant cost or schedule growth.  Eight others, including the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft, are entering the phase of their development cycle where problems are most likely to occur.  GAO warned that cost increases or schedule delays for SLS/Orion could have "substantial repercussions" for NASA's entire portfolio. NASA announced a delay of the first SLS/Orion launch just last week.

Today's report is GAO's ninth assessment of NASA's major projects since Congress directed it to conduct these reviews in a 2009 appropriations bill.  GAO gave NASA a nod for maintaining recent improvements in maturing technologies for its projects to the level recommended by GAO best practices and for improved design stability.  It also pointed to improved project management tools to manage acquisition risk, but cautioned that resource constraints have prevented NASA from implementing a best practice for monitoring contractor performance that GAO recommended in 2012.  It also continues to monitor the effect of NASA's 2015 decision to eliminate its independent program assessment office

For this year's report, GAO identified 22 NASA "major projects" on which the agency will spend a total of more than $6 billion in FY2017 and $59 billion over their lifecycles.  The report discusses 21 of them.  It excludes OSIRIS-REx since it has been launched already.   Sixteen of the 21 are in the implementation phase; the others are in formulation.  (A project transitions from formulation to implementation at the Key Decision Point-C or KDP-C milestone.)   Four of the 21 are assessed for the first time in this report:  Landsat 9; Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE); Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI); and Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).   Two of the projects assessed in the report have been recommended for termination by the Trump Administration:  PACE and the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM, part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission).

NASA won praise for overall management of its projects:  "The overall cost and schedule performance of NASA's portfolio of major projects continues to improve--a trend that began in 2013."  For the portfolio of 16 projects in the implementation phase, cost growth declined to 15.6 percent from 17.3 percent last year.  Average launch delay declined to 7 months from 8 months. 

However, the InSight Mars mission and the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) project are concerns. The launch of InSight was delayed two years because of a technical problem with one of its instruments.  Costs for SGSS are rising "due to continued problems with contractor performance."  Two others also are worrying:  ICESat-2, whose cost and schedule are under review because technical issues with its only instrument, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS); and the commercial crew program, whose contractors (SpaceX and Boeing) have notified NASA that development and certification will slip from 2017 to 2018.

Also, GAO noted that eight projects are at the point where most rebaselines occur -- between critical design review and systems integration review.  They include SLS, Orion, and their associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), the three components of NASA's deep space human exploration program.

GAO warned that since SLS, Orion, and EGS represent more than half of the money in NASA's development portfolio, "a cost increase or delay could have substantial repercussions not only for these programs, but for NASA's entire portfolio." 

Indeed, NASA announced days ago that the first launch of SLS and Orion -- Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which will not have a crew -- will be delayed from November 2018 to sometime in 2019.  NASA is still determining when the launch will take place. 

In addition to an overview of NASA's management of its major projects portfolio, GAO provides a two-page summary of each of the 21 projects assessed in the report

  • Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission
  • Commercial Crew Program
  • Europa Clipper
  • Exploration Ground Systems
  • Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE FO)
  • Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2)
  • Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight)
  • Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON)
  • James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)
  • Landsat 9
  • Mars 2020
  • NASA ISRO -- Synthetic Aperture Radar
  • Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle
  • Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE)
  • Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI)
  • Solar Probe Plus (SPP)
  • Space Launch System (SLS)
  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS)
  • Surface Water and Topography (SWOT)
  • Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)
  • Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

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