The telescope assembly for the James Webb Space Telescope being moved inside a clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center after completing vibration and acoustic tests. Credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

WASHINGTON — A House hearing on the reasons for cost and schedule problems with major NASA programs pointed blame at a wide variety of sources, from the tools used to track programs to the agency’s mindset to Congress itself.

In his opening statement at a hearing June 14 by the House space subcommittee on cost and schedule overruns, chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) suggested the problem with such overruns might be linked to the use of an approach called joint confidence level (JCL) for cost and schedule estimates.

“We are particularly interested in the NASA Inspector General’s recommendations on improvements with NASA’s cost estimating methodologies, especially if there is a need to continue using the JCL process or adopt another cost estimating technique,” he said.

Another key member offered similar concerns. “I am anxious to hear from our witnesses on whether cost and schedule models that are based on the past, traditional approaches to NASA project development are being updated to reflect the changes in today’s manufacturing, operations and technology environment,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the full committee. That could, she said, require additional research and development to update such models, or use of other tools.

However, in his testimony, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin focused on issues than the use of JCL techniques. The biggest challenges to cost and schedule, he said, included a “culture of optimism” at the agency and underestimating technical complexity.

That culture of optimism, he said, is rooted in NASA’s success in the Apollo program nearly a half-century ago. “NASA’s ability to overcome obstacles has become part of its can-do culture,” he said. “However, our work has shown that this attitude contributes to development of unrealistic plans and performance baselines, particularly with respect to its largest projects.”

That has created what Martin said is called the “Hubble psychology,” where cost and schedule is held secondary to ultimate mission success. “A too-big-to-fail mentality pervades agency thinking when it comes to NASA’s larger and most important missions,” he said.

“To meet cost and schedule goals, agency leaders must temper NASA’s historic culture of optimism by demanding more realistic cost and schedule estimates, well-defined and stable requirements and mature technologies early in project development,” he said.

Martin added, though, that Congress plays a role by providing “adequate and properly phased” funding. Other witnesses said that has been a problem with past and current projects, including the Space Launch System and Orion.

“A key issue is projects developed under a flatline budget,” said Dan Dumbacher, a former NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems who is now executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “A flatline budget requires program managers to realign the work as they go to stay under the budget cap, resulting in hard priority decisions and inefficiencies that explicitly break the program linkages across schedule and budget.”

Uncertainty about funding in general, including the use of continuing resolutions and threats of government shutdowns, also impairs project management, he argued. “The need to constantly have backup plans for various potential appropriations outcomes, different budget planning levels, along with flexible workforce blueprints, invites confusion and miscommunication.”

Other members of Congress blamed contractors for poor cost and schedule performance. “It is time for NASA’s contractors to deliver,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the full committee, in his opening statement. He noted that a NASA authorization bill approved by the committee in April would create a “watch list” of contractors cited for poor performance on contracts who could be restricted from competing on future NASA contracts.

Asked later in the hearing by Smith who would be candidates for that watch list, Cristina Chaplain, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at the Government Accountability Office, cited two examples. One is General Dynamics, the prime contractor on NASA’s Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment project, with the other being Harris Corporation, the prime contractor for the recently cancelled Radiation Budget Instrument. “Those are the more extreme cases” of contractor problems, she said.

Another company mentioned in the hearing was Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the James Webb Space Telescope. Problems with its development, including what Martin termed “avoidable human mistakes,” have led to delays in its development and the potential to breach its $8 billion cost cap. Smith said that Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Wes Bush will testify at a committee hearing next month on the status of JWST, likely after NASA delivers a report to Congress with updated cost and schedule estimates.

NASA will also soon provide a report to Congress on the estimated cost of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) required by the 2018 omnibus spending bill. That report was due to Congress last month, but Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, said that the report should be finalized and delivered in a couple of weeks.

Jurczyk added that a recent decision by the Canadian Space Agency not to participate in the WFIRST mission won’t affect the mission’s cost or scientific performance. “That decision was factored in to the project’s replanning” to bring the mission back within a cost cap of $3.2 billion, he said. “The level one science goals do not change and they will meet the requirements of the mission.”

Regardless of the cause, there was palpable frustration at the hearing about cost and schedule problems with NASA programs, which a recent GAO report indicated were worsening after several years of improvement. “This has simply got to stop,” said Babin. “We need performance, not excuses from the agency as well as providers.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...