WASHINGTON — NASA said it has no plans to pull the plug on a $200 million Earth science mission now in development despite having told Congress in late December that the satellite project was overrunning its budget and was up for cancellation.
When NASA submitted its detailed 2005 spending plan to key congressional committees last month for review, the U.S. space agency said that it planned to cut $5 million from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) budget because the mission was “under review for possible termination due to cost performance issues.”
A senior NASA official said Jan. 14 that the warning of an impending OCO cancellation was a mistake, blaming it on miscommunication between NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and the NASA Comptroller’s office, which authored the budget documents sent to Congress last month.
“The source of confusion, in all sincerity, is that at the time we were communicating with the comptroller’s office, [we] highlighted some areas that are going to be the focus of the [OCO] confirmation review and in highlighting those areas was the cause for confusion,” Ghassem Asrar, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for science said in an interview. “That language unfortunately is there, and I have talked to our comptroller, Steve Isakowitz, and we are going to clarify it for Congress. This was really not a signal one way or another that we are leaning toward confirming or not confirming the mission.”
Space News tried to reach Isakowitz, but NASA spokeswoman Sarah Keegan said he was traveling with NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe Jan. 14 and was not immediately available for comment.
NASA is expected to decide this spring whether to proceed with the OCO, a mission selected in 2002 to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide around the globe in an effort to better understand whether and how humans contribute to global warming. Launch is slated for late 2007.
The mission, part of the Earth System Science Pathfinder Project, is up for its confirmation review in April.
The purpose of that review is to assess the project’s schedule, cost performance and technical readiness before giving the formal go-ahead to start building the satellite and instruments and contract for a launch. If a mission does not pass its confirmation review, it is either canceled or given more time to address concerns raised by senior management.
Asked if OCO was in fact experiencing “cost performance issues” as indicated in the budget documents NASA gave Congress last month, Asrar said NASA would not know the answer to that question until the confirmation review is completed.
He did, however, say that NASA headquarters personnel, who had been “looking over the shoulder” of the OCO project team, have said they wanted to take a closer look at the mission’s cost and schedule “but that does not mean we have already done our specific evaluation.”
Asrar acknowledged that NASA plans to cut $5 million from OCO’s budget this year, but could not explain why. “I do not know the details of the adjustment, but I do know there was an adjustment to OCO’s budget.”
Word of OCO being up for cancellation caught the program’s prime contractor, Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., by surprise.
“Everything on the program seems to be going just fine so we were a bit surprised to see that too,” Orbital spokesman Barry Beneski said Jan. 12. “We’re not aware of any problems with the program. We are basically on schedule and on budget and have a good relationship with our partner [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory].”
The Pasadena, Calif.-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory is managing the OCO mission. Orbital Sciences and Pomona, Calif.-based Hamilton Sundstrand Sensor Systems are designing the spacecraft and instrument.