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GAO Slams JWST, MSL Cost Overruns

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Mar-2012
Updated: 01-Mar-2012 06:41 PM

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported today that the overrun on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is $3.6 billion -- 140 percent.   The Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, currently enroute to Mars, suffered an 84 percent overrun.  Together, the two projects account for 51 percent of the life-cycle costs of 15 programs that have reached the implementation phase that GAO studied as part of its annual assessment of large projects at the agency.

GAO reviewed 21 NASA projects that have an estimated life-cycle cost over $250 million. Combined, their life-cycle costs exceed $43 billion.  Six of the 21 are in the formulation stage, while the other 15 are in implementation where cost and schedule baselines have been established.  Five of the 15 were launched last year and only two of them met their baselines. 

MSL, one of the three launched last year that did not meet its baseline cost and schedule estimate, was 26 months late and $813 million over its original 2008 baseline budget (GAO noted that it was rebaselined in 2010).   GAO stated that NASA took money from other projects to pay for the overruns.   Nonetheless, the MSL "launched with a risk that the rover's sample analysis drill will short circuit" and "the project did not complete all of the software for entry, descent and landing, and surface activities."   NASA plans to finish the software while the spacecraft is enroute to Mars.   Landing is scheduled for August 5, 2012 PDT (August 6 EDT).

JWST's current life-cycle cost estimate is $8.835 billion, a 140 percent increase over its baseline, with a launch date of October 2018, 52 months late.  GAO warned that the overrun "may lead to the postponement and possible cancellation of other science projects."

NASA received credit from GAO for implementing the Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) process.  Five of the projects GAO reviewed completed a JCL, but GAO said it "was unable to confirm" that they were budgeted at the approved confidence level.  It cites NASA officials as saying it will take several years to know the extent to which the JCL process will improve cost and schedule estimating.

The 21 projects GAO reviewed are:

  • Aquarius
  • ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
  • Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Mission
  • Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL)
  • Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESAT-2)
  • James Webb Space Telescope
  • Juno
  • Landsat Data Continuity Mission
  • Lunar Atmospheric and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE)
  • Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS)
  • Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN)
  • Mars Science Laboratory
  • NPOESS Preparatory Project (recently renamed Suomi NPP)
  • Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2)
  • Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV)
  • Radiation Belt Storm Probes
  • Soil Moisture Active and Passice (SMAP)
  • Solar Probe Plus
  • Space Launch System (SLS)
  • Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)
  • Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) Replenishment  

The bottom line, GAO said, is that NASA needs to develop a sound business case for any new mission before proceeding.  "A sound business case underpins successful acquisition outcomes," the congressional watchdog agency said.  That means NASA must determine that the "customer's needs are valid and can best be met with the chosen concept" and that concept "can be developed and produced within existing resources -- that is, proven technologies, design knowledge, adequate funding, adequate time, and adequate workforce to deliver the product when needed." 

GAO did not make any new recommendations, instead pointing to previous recommendations in earlier reports. This is its fourth annual assessment.


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