GAO: Restore-L Mission Schedule is Lagging

Artist’s conception of Restore-L servicing satellite with Landsat 7. (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s Restore-L project — which aims to demonstrate on-orbit satellite servicing by refueling the Landsat 7 satellite — is running behind schedule due to funding and technical issues, according to an audit from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“The project’s current notional schedule would delay Restore-L’s launch outside the servicing window for Landsat 7,” the audit stated. “Specifically, the agreed upon servicing window is January through September 2021, which the notional project launch schedule in December 2021 does not meet.

“However, that window may be extended if NASA reimburses the U.S. Geological Survey for additional costs to continue Landsat 7 operations,” the document added.

A key issue has been the project’s budget.

“In April 2017, NASA set a preliminary cost estimate range of $626 million to $753 million with a projected launch readiness date between June and December 2020,” the GAO found. “However, the funding profile the Space Technology Mission Directorate proposed for future years will not allow the project to maintain a launch in 2020.”

The Restore-L project is modifying heritage technology, with five of the six technologies already matured by the time of the preliminary design review in November 2017.

“The technology that was not mature was a replacement for the prior vision navigation system, which did not meet requirements and the vendor was unable to resolve the issue,” the audit stated. “Project officials stated that they have a plan in place to mature the new system by December 2018.”

The GAO’s assessment of the Restore-L project is below.

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

Restore-L

The Restore-L project will demonstrate the capability to refuel on-orbit satellites for eventual use by commercial entities. Specifically, Restore-L plans to autonomously rendezvous with, inspect, capture, refuel, adjust the orbit of, safely release, and depart from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landsat 7 satellite. Landsat 7 can extend operations if successfully refueled, but it is planned for retirement if the technology demonstration is unsuccessful.

Project Information

NASA Lead Center: Goddard Space Flight Center
International Partner: None
Launch Location: Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA
Launch Vehicle: TBD
Mission Duration: 12 months
Requirement Derived from: Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016
Budget Portfolio: Space Technology, Research and Development

Project Summary

The Restore-L project is no longer working to the preliminary cost and schedule estimates that NASA approved when it entered the preliminary design phase because the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s proposed budget does not allow the project to execute to that plan. The mission directorate asked the project to evaluate two scenarios based on future funding possibilities. The project is to present a plan based on these scenarios to the mission directorate prior to the project establishing its cost and schedule baselines at its confirmation review in April 2018.

The project reported that it does not use any new, critical technologies and that all six heritage technologies are modified from prior projects to fit the Restore-L design. The project matured five of these six technologies to the level recommended by best practices at its November 2017 preliminary design review. The technology that was not mature was a replacement for the prior vision navigation system, which did not meet requirements and the vendor was unable to resolve the issue. Project officials stated that they have a plan in place to mature the new system by December 2018.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The Restore-L project is no longer working to the preliminary cost and schedule estimates that NASA approved when it entered the preliminary design phase because the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s proposed budget does not allow the project to execute to that plan.

In April 2017, NASA set a preliminary cost estimate range of $626 million to $753 million with a projected launch readiness date between June and December 2020. However, the funding profile the Space Technology Mission Directorate proposed for future years will not allow the project to maintain a launch in 2020. As a result, the mission directorate asked the project to evaluate two scenarios based on future funding possibilities.

Credit: GAO

According to NASA officials, one scenario assumes $130 million in project funding per fiscal year through the updated preliminary launch date for on-orbit demonstration. The other assumes $130 million for fiscal year 2018 followed by about $45 million for each of the fiscal years 2019 through 2024—focusing on technology development for industry use. The project is to present a plan based on these scenarios to the mission directorate prior to project confirmation review—the point at which the project will formally establish its cost and schedule baselines.

The project has delayed its confirmation review from September 2017 to April 2018, in part to allow for more time to evaluate the scenarios. As of December 2017, the project’s notional schedule is for a launch readiness date in December 2021, 1 year later than planned when the project entered the preliminary design phase. This notional schedule is based on various funding scenarios the project could face, and provides additional schedule reserve.

Technology and Design

The Restore-L project matured five of its six technologies to the level recommended by best practices at its preliminary design review in November 2017. Best practices recommend maturing technologies to a technology readiness level 6 by the project’s preliminary design review to help minimize risks for space systems entering product development.

The technology that was not mature at the review was a replacement vision navigation system that is new to the project. The prior vision navigation system did not meet requirements and the vendor was unable to resolve the issue.

The project’s independent review board stated that Restore-L needed a comprehensive plan to mature the technology at the review and project officials said they have a plan in place to mature the new system to a technology readiness level 6 by December 2018. The project reported that it does not use any new, critical technologies and that all 6 heritage technologies are modified from prior projects to fit the Restore-L design. Project officials said that although Restore-L uses all heritage technologies, the technologies will be used together in a new way to complete the mission’s requirements.

The robot system is driving the project’s schedule and the project has had to redesign system components, which consumed schedule reserve and put pressure on the project’s preliminary launch schedule of December 2020. The robot system, which includes the spacecraft’s robotic arm and associated components, will be used to capture the Landsat 7 spacecraft and will then employ tools to access the Landsat 7’s propellant system, transfer propellant, and seal the system prior to releasing the spacecraft.

The resolver pre-amp assembly—a component used to amplify signals to the robotic arm—is undergoing redesign to address signal distortion concerns. Another element, the robotic electronics units used to control the arm, is being redesigned to simplify and reduce the number of components in order to reduce schedule risk during integration and test. This redesign consumed schedule reserve before the project began working to a December 2021 notional schedule.

Other Issues to be Monitored

The project’s current notional schedule would delay Restore-L’s launch outside the servicing window for Landsat 7. Specifically, the agreed upon servicing window is January through September 2021, which the notional project launch schedule in December 2021 does not meet. However, that window may be extended if NASA reimburses the U.S. Geological Survey for additional costs to continue Landsat 7 operations.

Project Office Comments

Restore-L project officials provided technical comments on a draft of this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.