SAN FRANCISCO — While most NASA inspector general reviews reveal problems, a recent report lauds the U.S. space agency’s management of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) program for adhering to the schedule and budget.

NASA plans to launch two satellites, TDRS-K and TDRS-L, on Atlas 5 rockets in December in 2012 and December 2013, respectively, to replace aging spacecraft in the constellation that relays tracking, data, voice and video communications between ground stations and government spacecraft operating in low Earth orbit, including the international space station and NASA Earth science missions.

The inspector general’s report cites TDRS as proof that NASA can manage programs well. “During the past year we found that managers for the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite K and L Project implemented a robust risk management process and made informed decisions based on earned value management data,” said the Nov. 12 report, “NASA’s Top Management and Performance Challenges,” by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin. “As a result, development of two replacement satellites was within budget and on schedule. Even though TDRS K and L are the 11th and 12th satellites built for the program while many other NASA projects are unique instruments, the challenge for NASA is to use sound management tools to identify and mitigate programmatic risks in all of its projects.”

In late November, NASA officials met with Boeing Satellite Systems, prime contractor for the TDRS spacecraft, to conduct a mission operations review, a thorough look at all planning and preparation for the TDRS-K mission. The successful completion of that review clears the way for Boeing to conduct independent testing of the TDRS-K satellite bus and payload module, said Jeff Gramling, TDRS project manager for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Early in 2011, the payload module will be integrated with the bus, and spacecraft-level testing will begin in April, Gramling added.

Although TDRS-K is very similar to other satellites in the constellation, it is not a carbon copy of its predecessors. The TDRS constellation was established in 1983 to replace NASA’s ground-based communications network, and each generation of new satellites includes modifications. The third-generation spacecraft, TDRS-K and TDRS-L, are “not too different from TDRS-H, TDRS-I and TDRS-J,” though many components had to be replaced because the previous satellites were designed in the late 1990s, Gramling said. “In any flight project, once we get into production, there is no avoiding parts problems,” he added. “Every flight project has challenges.”

The long period between initial design of the TDRS satellites and the current round of construction presents challenges for Boeing as well. “It’s been 10 years since [the TDRS satellites were] designed so we did have to deal with a fair amount of obsolescence in the design, parts and suppliers,” said Bob Hladek, TDRS program manager for Boeing Satellite Systems of El Segundo, Calif. Boeing had to find new suppliers for some components and certain subsystems had to be redesigned, he added.

For example, Boeing engineers redesigned the satellite’s radio frequency electronics because that technology has evolved significantly during the last decade. “We want to take advantage of the latest state-of-the-art designs,” Hladek said.

The new TDRS spacecraft also boast higher-powered S-band and Ku-band antennas than their predecessors. That change will offer stronger signals for teams that rely on TDRS to relay communications from spacecraft to ground stations and back, Hladek said.

In addition, TDRS-K and TDRS-L will be carried into geosynchronous orbit on different launch vehicles from the previous TDRS spacecraft. In December 2011, TDRS-K is scheduled to be launched on Atlas 5 rockets built by Denver-based United Launch Alliance. An Atlas 5 also is scheduled to launch TDRS-K in December 2012. In contrast, the three previous satellites were launched on Atlas 2A rockets built by Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., before the firm established United Launch Alliance, a joint venture with Chicago-based Boeing.

Boeing is building the TDRS-K and TDRS-L and updating the network’s ground station in White Sands, N.M., under a NASA contract valued at $695 million. That contract, awarded in December 2007, includes priced options for two additional spacecraft, TDRS-M and TDRS-N which must be exercised before Nov. 30, 2011. If those options are exercised, the total value of the contract would be approximately $1.2 billion.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...