Review of Big NASA Programs Finds Positives, Issues Cautions

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The U.S. Government Accountability Office offered a mix of good news and red flags in its annual assessment of “large-scale” NASA projects released April 15. 

The good news is that NASA, by and large, is doing well in terms of cost and schedule performance of its major programs: an average cost growth of 3 percent and launch delay of 2.8 months for 14 selected programs in their implementation phase, compared with average cost growth of 3.9 percent and launch delay of four months in 2013. 

Those figures exclude the James Webb Space Telescope, however. When that program is included, the average cost growth in the 2014 report rises to 37.8 percent and the average launch delay goes to 6.6 months given that large program’s major overruns. 

Nonetheless, the averages with JWST included are still an improvement from 2013.

Prior to the report’s release, NASA officials had been emphasizing the good performance they were seeing on most of their missions. “More and more the last few years, our missions are coming in on schedule and on budget,” Craig Tupper, director of the resources management division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a briefing to the NASA Advisory Council science committee April 9. “That certainly helps us to maintain stability in the program.”

There are, though, a few problems with the portfolio, including the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat)-2 mission, whose cost has increased by at least 15 percent. [See story, page 5]

Potentially bigger issues than the overrun on ICESat-2, through, are uncertainties about much larger programs. The GAO report notes that nearly three-quarters of the overall budget for major programs belongs to only four programs: JWST, the Space Launch System, the Orion deep-space crew capsule and the Commercial Crew Program. “Any cost or schedule overrun on NASA’s largest, most complex projects could have a ripple effect on the portfolio and has the potential to postpone or even cancel altogether projects in earlier development stages,” the report warns.

The GAO is particularly concerned that, based on where these largest programs currently are, the risk for overruns is high. “JWST will soon enter integration and testing — the point at which cost growth and schedule delays are most likely,” the report states. “Additionally, there are questions about the realism of the SLS and Orion cost estimates.” 

SLS and Orion were not included in the GAO’s overall cost and schedule figures because the programs are still in their formulation phase, although NASA officials have stated that — at least for now — those programs remain on track.