NASA has regressed in its efforts to control cost growth and schedule delays on its various high-risk projects, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
“Following several years of continuing a generally positive trend of limiting cost growth and schedule delays for its portfolio of major projects, we found that NASA’s average launch delay increased from 7 to 12 months between May 2017 and May 2018,” the report stated. “Further, the overall development cost growth increased from 15.6 percent to at least 18.8 percent over the same time period.”
The biggest offender: the James Webb Space Telescope. GAO found the telescope’s costs have risen by 95 percent and its schedule has slipped by 81 months since 2009.
The information was contained in testimony that U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro gave last week before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Dodaro testified about a GAO report that examined 35 high-risk areas across the federal government. NASA’s acquisition management has been on the high-risk list since 1990.
GAO criticized NASA’s leadership for approving risky plans for a number of major projects. The agency has set overly aggressive schedules with cost and schedule reserves that are too low. Officials are also failing to follow best practices on cost and schedule baselines, Dodaro’s testimony said.
“NASA leadership has also not been transparent about cost and schedule estimates for some of its most expensive projects,” the document added. “Without transparency into these estimates, both NASA and Congress have limited data to inform decision making.”
The need for transparency is especially important in the space agency’s human spaceflight program, the report stated.
“Over the next several years, NASA plans to add new, large, and complex projects to the portfolio, including a lunar Gateway—currently being discussed as a platform in a lunar orbit to mature deep space exploration capabilities,” the testimony said. “In addition, many of NASA’s current major projects, including some of the most expensive ones, are in the phase of their life cycles when cost growth and schedule delays are most likely.”
GAO said that although NASA has an action plan to address these areas, the space agency has not instituted a program to monitor and independently verify the effectiveness and sustainability of the corrective actions it is taking.
The watchdog agency also found that NASA “lacks staff or staff with skills in the areas of avionics, flight software, systems engineering, business management, software development for certain acquisition projects, as well as gaps in areas such as cost estimating and earned value management capabilities.”
Excerpts about NASA from the testimony follow.
High-Risk Series: Substantial Efforts Needed
to Achieve Greater Progress on High-Risk Areas
Statement of Gene L. Dodaro,
Comptroller General of the United States
Government Accountability Office
March 6, 2019
High-Risk Areas Needing Significant Attention
In the 2 years since our last High-Risk Report, three areas—NASA Acquisition Management, Transforming EPA’s Process for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals, and Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure By Better Managing Climate Change Risks—have regressed in their ratings against our criteria for removal from the High-Risk List. In addition, while progress is needed across all high-risk areas, we have identified nine additional areas that require significant attention to address imminent, longstanding, or particularly broad issues affecting the nation.
High-Risk Areas That Regressed
NASA Acquisition Management
NASA plans to invest billions of dollars in the coming years to explore space, improve its understanding of the Earth’s environment, and conduct aeronautics research, among other things. We designated NASA’s acquisition management as high risk in 1990 in view of NASA’s history of persistent cost growth and schedule delays in the majority of its major projects.
Following several years of continuing a generally positive trend of limiting cost growth and schedule delays for its portfolio of major projects, we found that NASA’s average launch delay increased from 7 to 12 months between May 2017 and May 2018. Further, the overall development cost growth increased from 15.6 percent to at least 18.8 percent over the same time period. NASA’s largest science project, the James Webb Space Telescope, has experienced schedule delays of 81 months and cost growth of 95 percent since the project’s cost and schedule baseline was first established in 2009.
NASA is at risk for continued cost growth and schedule delays in its portfolio of major projects. Since our 2017 high-risk update, we have lowered NASA acquisition management from meeting the rating to partially meeting the rating in two criteria—leadership commitment and monitoring. The other three criteria ratings remained the same as in 2017. Ratings for capacity and demonstrated progress remain partially met and the rating for action plan remains met.
Over the next several years, NASA plans to add new, large, and complex projects to the portfolio, including a lunar Gateway—currently being discussed as a platform in a lunar orbit to mature deep space exploration capabilities. In addition, many of NASA’s current major projects, including some of the most expensive ones, are in the phase of their life cycles when cost growth and schedule delays are most likely.
NASA acquisition management requires significant attention for the following reasons:
- NASA leadership has approved risky programmatic decisions for complex major projects, which compounded technical challenges.For example, leadership has approved some programs to proceed(1)with low cost and schedule reserves, (2) with overly aggressive schedules, and (3) without following best practices for establishing reliable cost and schedule baselines.
- NASA leadership has also not been transparent about cost and schedule estimates for some of its most expensive projects.Without transparency into these estimates, both NASA and Congress have limited data to inform decision making.
- NASA has not yet instituted a program for monitoring and independently validating the effectiveness and sustainability of the corrective action measures in its new action plan, which NASA finalized in December 2018.
In addition, while NASA has taken some steps to build capacity to help reduce acquisition risk, including updating tools aimed at improving cost and schedule estimates, other areas still require attention. For example, we reported in May 2018 that several major NASA projects experienced workforce challenges, including not having enough staff or staff with the right skills. NASA has also identified capability gaps in areas such as scheduling, earned value management, and cost estimating, and has efforts underway to try to improve capacity in these areas.
Since 2017, we have made 9 recommendations on this high-risk area, and as of December 2018, 15 recommendations remain open. These recommendations include that NASA needs to improve transparency of major project cost and schedule estimates, especially for its human spaceflight programs, as well as continue to build capacity to reduce acquisition risk. NASA will also need to implement its new action plan and track progress against it. See page 222 of the report for additional detail on this high-risk area, including more details on actions that need to be taken.