NASA’s IceSat-2 Busts Budget, Report Headed to Congress

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CORRECTION: The article now contains the correct figure for NASA spending to date on IceSat-2.

WASHINGTON — With the project likely to bust its $559 million development budget, NASA is preparing a mandatory report for Congress about delays to the Earth-observing Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (IceSat)-2, agency officials said here.

“It looks like we cannot keep that cost commitment,” Craig Tupper, director of NASA’s Resources Management Division, said Dec. 3 during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee at the agency’s headquarters here. “There’s a notification right now churning its way through the system, and that will be going to the Hill.”

By U.S. law, NASA must inform Congress when a project appears likely to exceed its established baseline cost by more than 15 percent. The notification requirement, modeled after the Nunn-McCurdy law requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress when programs breach certain thresholds, was put in place by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act.

IceSat-2, which is more than three years from being ready to launch, has so far spent about $129 million of the $559 million NASA thought it would take to build the satellite when it established a baseline in 2012. 

“IceSat-2 is having … significant technical and program-management difficulties,” Mike Freilich, head of NASA’s Earth Science Division, told the committee. Some of these problems have already been addressed, Freilich said, but “we still need to have a future baseline review in order to reset an appropriate launch date for that mission.”

Freilich said he did not know when that review might take place, or when Congress might receive the breach report NASA is now legally obliged to deliver. Freilich told SpaceNews that work on IceSat-2 will continue while Congress is briefed on the project’s overruns.

In October, Freilich said technical problems with IceSat-2’s only instrument, a laser altimeter, were to blame for the potentially costly delay the project now faces. Launch, he said at that time, would likely slip from December 2016 to some time between February and June of 2017. When the first IceSat’s seven-year mission ended in 2010, NASA thought it could build and launch IceSat-2 as soon as 2015.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has been working with Herndon, Va.-based Fibertek Inc. to build IceSat-2’s Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, which will be integrated with a spacecraft bus supplied by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. Fibertek was awarded a five-year, $35 million indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract in 2009 to help design and build the instrument’s lasers and ground system hardware. In 2011, NASA gave Fibertek a $26 million cost-plus contract to provide four spaceflight lasers and one test laser. That contract runs through the launch of IceSat-2 plus 38 months of postlaunch support. 

IceSat-2’s three-year primary mission is designed to measure changes in the elevation of global ice sheets, sea-ice freeboard and the height of vegetation canopies from a 495-kilometer polar orbit.

 

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