— NASA’s acting administrator, Chris Scolese, told a congressional oversight panel that the space agency recognizes it has failed to adequately predict cost and schedules for major missions in the past but that steps are being taken to resolve the problem within one to two years.

“We don’t have to live with consistent cost overruns,” Scolese told members of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee during a March 5 hearing. “We have to train our people to recognize when estimates are too optimistic. We have to monitor performance. And we have to put tools in place so we catch [problems] early enough so they don’t have large cost impacts.”

Scolese was testifying in response to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on NASA’s major missions, which found that 10 out of the 13 programs in the implementation phase experienced significant problems, including an average cost increase of 13 percent and an average launch delay of 11 months. The largest cost increases were associated with the Mars Science Laboratory and Glory climate monitoring satellite. The GAO report noted, however, that NASA’s ability to estimate the cost of major space programs is improving as is congressional oversight since NASA officials are required to report to Congress cost overruns of 15 percent or more.

The GAO report also cited issues that continue to create cost and schedule problems for the space agency. Most notably, NASA program managers continue to call for design changes of major components too late in the program cycle, Cristina Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, told the committee. While GAO officials recognize that NASA’s job is to undertake ambitious projects, program managers should limit their investigation of enabling advanced technologies to the first two to five years of a program. After that, managers need to define firm requirements, she said.

“Once a program is ready to move forward, you need stability to execute it,” Chaplain said. “That is especially important with big ticket programs like Ares, Orion and the James Webb telescope.”

It has been particularly difficult for NASA officials to estimate the cost of manned flight missions, Scolese told the committee, because so few projects have been undertaken and because these programs extend over decades. “We don’t have strong historical data,” he said.

As a result, NASA was unable to provide GAO with specific cost estimates for the Ares 1 rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. Instead, space agency officials told GAO the entire Ares program is expected to cost between $17 billion and $20 billion while Orion is expected to cost between $20 billion and $29 billion, according to the report.

In spite of these budgetary uncertainties, Scolese told the committee that the space agency remains committed to ending shuttle flights in 2010 and concentrating on the Ares and Orion programs. “From a stability and risk standpoint, having a fixed date allows us to begin transitioning people and resources to the next program,” Scolese said.

In their analysis of cost overrun issues, both Chaplain and Scolese cited poor contractor performance as impediment to cost and schedule performance. “Several of the climate and environmental monitoring programs have had cost overruns attributable to contractor performance and NASA not really recognizing the contractor may not have the expertise to develop some of the key sensors for satellites,” Chaplain said. “We would like to see more attention paid upfront to what the contractor can do and cannot do.”

While Scolese said space agency officials are improving their oversight of contractors, he also discussed the difficulty of finding suppliers for various parts due to the shrinking industrial base. “When there is no competition, we are forced to go with the supplier that exists,” Scolese said. “The loss of expertise is a big problem. We don’t have as many scientists and engineers to build spacecraft and components.”

As a result, NASA is forced at times to buy component parts from suppliers in other countries, which increases the risk of counterfeit parts, Scolese added.

To strengthen the industrial base, Scolese urged the committee to reduce or streamline export regulations, saying those rules were making it difficult for aerospace companies to compete for foreign contracts. “A communications satellite company may have 30 to 60 days to bid on a project,” Scolese said. “It takes that long to get through the [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] process.”

During the hearing, Scolese also discussed the difficulty NASA missions have been having finding openings in a crowded launch manifest. “The launch manifest is backed up, causing some missions to slip,” he said. “Fixing the problem will take time.”

In addition to working with United Launch Alliance of Denver and the Department of Defense to make sure the current launch manifest is realistic, Scolese said NASA is promoting the development of new medium-size launch vehicles and considering whether the space agency could rely on companies outside the United States to provide launch services, not for a fee, but as part of another country’s contribution to cooperative programs.

Another witness at the hearing, Gary Pulliam, vice president for civil and commercial operations at the Aerospace Corp., told the committee that the government should consider making improvements to launch facilities and the surrounding infrastructure. “We have to ensure that facilities are being used in the most efficient way to serve multiple users,” Pulliam said.