Costs Soar on NASA Communications Upgrade Program

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WASHINGTON — A much-needed ground segment modernization for NASA’s space communications network is up to two years behind schedule and could exceed its budget by more than 30 percent, well above the 15 percent trigger for congressional notification, a new government report said.

IceSat-2
IceSat-2. Credit: Orbital ATK

In its latest assessment of NASA’s biggest programs, the U.S. Government Accountability Office identified the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) as one of three — not counting the notoriously overbudget James Webb Space Telescope — that account for most of the projected cumulative cost growth this year. The others are the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, which launched March 12, and the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, mission, the congressional watchdog agency said.

The SGSS difficulties, which the GAO laid largely at the feet of its main contractor, General Dynamics Mission Systems, prompted NASA to undertake a program rebaselining activity — in other words, develop new cost and schedule estimates — and withhold some funding in 2014 and 2015, the report said. NASA has also scaled back some program elements, reducing overall SGSS capability, the GAO said.

The GAO’s annual report, “NASA: Assessments of Selected Large-Scale Projects,” released March 26, provided status updates on 16 NASA programs with established baseline budgets of $250 million or more. This year’s version included for the first time five programs with newly established cost baselines, including the Space Launch System heavy lift rocket, whose projected development cost exceeds $7 billion.

Overall, NASA is doing a better job of controlling costs than in the past, the GAO said. Cumulative projected cost growth for 2015 is 2.4 percent — again, excluding the JWST — while average schedule slippage is three months, the GAO said. But the report also noted that the size of the five newly included programs, which have yet to experience growth against their cost and schedule estimates, helped to mask the inflation on the others.

The GAO also said NASA faces a challenge over the next few years to complete a number of expensive, technically complex projects under constrained budgets. During 2015, five of those projects — the JWST, Space Launch System, Orion crew capsule, Mars 2020 rover and Commercial Crew program — will consume nearly 80 percent of the funding for major NASA programs, the report said.

In last year’s assessment, the GAO flagged the SGSS for cost growth. But it is apparent from the latest report that the program has blossomed into a full-blown problem child.

Second-generation TDRSS satellite
Second-generation TDRSS satellite. Credit: NASA

The SGSS is an upgrade to the ground network for NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites, which provide essential tracking and communications services for NASA and certain U.S. national security satellites. According to the GAO report, the ground system relies on obsolete 1980s-era technology.

The SGSS is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and has major network facilities at NASA White Sands Test Facility, Las Cruces, New Mexico, the Guam Remote Ground Terminal in Guam, and the Space Network Expansion East in Blossom Point, Maryland.

In June 2010, General Dynamics C4 Systems of Scottsdale, Arizona — now part of General Dynamics Mission Systems — won the SGSS prime contract, which at the time was valued at $626 million. The contract value has since grown to $720 million, the GAO said.

The projected date for NASA’s acceptance review of the upgraded system has moved from June 2017 to May 2019, the GAO said.

Separate from the SGSS rebaselining, NASA has conducted what GAO called a replanning activity that eliminated some program elements including certain backup and simulation capabilities, the GAO said.

The report cited contractor issues, notably overly optimistic estimates about required staffing levels, as a major program risk. General Dynamics hopes to dramatically increase the number of workers assigned to the project in 2016, but NASA SGSS officials believe this is unrealistic, the GAO said.

“However, if the staffing levels are not achieved, the anticipated levels of productivity may not be attained and this would impact the project’s cost and schedule. To reduce any impacts on the schedule, the project has been approved to rephase $15 million from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2015, which allows the contractor to retain experienced staff. SGSS is continuing to work with the contractors to minimize any disruptions that may arise as staff is quickly brought onto the project,” the report said.

In a statement emailed to SpaceNews, a General Dynamics spokeswoman said the company and Goddard have worked closely together to ensure that the SGSS program is adequately staffed. “There is a high level of confidence by General Dynamics and NASA that we will continue delivering the capabilities needed to maintain the level of service the Space Network needs in the future, while reducing the cost and effort required to operate and maintain the system,” the statement said.