NASA Canceled Radiation Budget Instrument Due to Budget, Technical Issues

Radiation Budget Instrument (Credit: Harris Corporation)

Excessive cost growth, technical issues and poor contractor performance were the key factors that caused NASA to cancel a scientific instrument that had been set to fly aboard NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System 2 (JPSS-2), according to an assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“The RBI project continued to experience contract cost growth, and as of November 2017, contract costs for design, fabrication, and delivery of RBI had grown by about 110 percent from the original value for this work, or an increase of $115 million,” the assessment found.

“This increase depleted all remaining project-held cost reserves as the project entered the riskiest point of the development cycle,” the assessment added. “Ultimately, NASA determined that continuing to fund RBI from within the Earth Science Division budget would slow other important activities.”

RBI is a scanning radiometer whose planned mission was to support global climate research by continuing to measure how the Earth reflected sunlight and emitted thermal radiation. The data would have constituted one of two key sets of measurements to determine how much the Earth is warming or cooling.

“Based on the historical performance of other instruments and assessments of the likely remaining lifetime of on-orbit satellites, NASA believes the risk of a data gap is low if the next radiation budget-measuring instrument launches in 2027,” the report stated.

The GAO’s assessment of the RBI is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

Radiation Budget Instrument

The Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI) is a scanning radiometer that NASA planned to launch on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System 2 (JPSS-2). RBI’s planned mission was to support global climate monitoring by continuing measurements of the Earth’s reflected sunlight and emitted thermal radiation made by NASA and NOAA satellites over the past 30 years. This data was intended to represent one of two key sets of measurements needed to determine whether the Earth is warming or cooling.

Project Information

NASA Lead Center: Langley Research Center
International Partner: None
Launch Location: Not applicable
Launch Vehicle: Not applicable; instrument hosted on JPSS-2 spacecraft
Mission Duration: 7 years
Requirement Derived from: NASA Strategic Plan
Budget Portfolio: Science, Earth Science

Project Summary

According to NASA’s cancellation memorandum, NASA canceled the RBI project because of continued cost growth, technical issues, and poor contractor performance. The RBI project continued to experience contract cost growth, and as of November 2017, contract costs for design, fabrication, and delivery of RBI had grown by about 110 percent from the original value for this work, or an increase of $115 million. This increase depleted all remaining project-held cost reserves as the project entered the riskiest point of the development cycle. Ultimately, NASA determined that continuing to fund RBI from within the Earth Science Division budget would slow other important activities.

Project Status

According to NASA’s cancellation memorandum, the RBI project was canceled because of continued cost growth, technical issues, and poor contractor performance. The project identified the following specific issues that contributed to poor project cost and schedule performance: schedule planning that did not realistically account for contractor past performance, insufficient oversight of the contractor and its subcontractors, and poor integration of government and contractor teams with limited transparency concerning risks and issues.

In 2017, both the government and the contractor took steps to respond to poor project performance, including changes to both the government and contractor program management teams, but ultimately NASA determined that continuing to fund RBI from within the Earth Science Division budget would slow other important activities. Based on the historical performance of other instruments and assessments of the likely remaining lifetime of on-orbit satellites, NASA believes the risk of a data gap is low if the next radiation budget-measuring instrument launches in 2027.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The RBI project continued to experience contract cost growth, and was likely to exceed its cost baseline. As of November 2017, contract costs for design, fabrication, and delivery of RBI had grown by about 110 percent from the original value for this work, or an increase of $115 million. This cost increase depleted all remaining project-held cost reserves as the project entered the riskiest point of the development cycle—the integration and test phase.

In 2016 and 2017, we found that projects appear most likely to rebaseline during this period. In November 2017, the project requested additional reserves to cover increased contractor costs. If NASA would have approved the increase, it would have brought the project’s costs to within approximately $2 million of its established cost baseline, which officials said was likely to be exceeded.

Credit: GAO

To support the decision of whether or not to continue the project, the project updated its joint cost and schedule confidence level, which is the likelihood that a project will meet its cost and schedule baseline. The update indicated that the project had a 30 percent chance of meeting the original delivery date of April 2019. As a result, the project updated the delivery date with NOAA to July 2019. The confidence level update showed that RBI had a 70 percent chance of meeting the later delivery date, but it would likely require additional funding in excess of the project’s cost baseline if other technical issues arose.

Technology and Design

The RBI project held its critical design review in September 2017 with 100 percent of its design drawings released. Best practices show that releasing 90 percent of design drawings by critical design review lowers the risk of subsequent cost and schedule growth.

The review, previously scheduled for June 2017, was delayed to provide more time to resolve technical issues and to have additional test results available to inform the review board on the project’s readiness to proceed. More specifically, the project conducted testing on an engineering development unit as a risk reduction measure and identified technical issues with the telescope and various electronic components that needed to be addressed prior to the review.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, RBI project officials stated that RBI was not included in the President’s fiscal year 2018 budget request and continuing to fund RBI from within the Earth Science Division budget would slow other important activities. Project officials stated that multiple efforts by the RBI government and contractor team to improve performance were yielding positive results, including the resolution of technical issues leading to a successful critical design review. Officials also said improved cost and schedule controls were also proving to be effective. Project officials also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.

  • Terry Stetler
  • Douglas Messier

    Thanks, Terry. Should have put that in the story.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    NASA and the DOD should have been doing this for decades they’ve let a culture of cost overrun build up. I have a sneaking suspicion that cost plus induced overruns will only be given negative feedback on projects that don’t suite the political stance of the administration. I’m betting this is cancelled and never replaced until the administration changes and that this sort of action is not taken against anything else that’s not involved with climate research on Earth.

  • envy

    The contractor is a subsidiary of Harris Corp, who is credited for the lead photo.

  • duheagle

    Alternatively, if no satellite data that inconveniently show no warming are coming in, then the frauds and grifters who run “climate science” these days save themselves a lot of work in “adjusting” said data to suit their purposes and can continue the charade for at least a bit longer.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    In reality the US will turn Lysenkoist in a whole branch of science and lose out to Europe and China in the industrial turns needed to adjust to our planetary engineering. You’ll feel smug and justified in the glow of your computer screen powered by Chinese solar panels and European windmills.