NASA IG Audit Finds Management and Schedule Issues with Europa Missions

The Clipper spacecraft flies over the surface of Europa in this artist’s rendering. NASA is currently studying this reduced-cost mission which would use at least 48 flybys to explore the moon instead of entering into orbit. (Credit: NASA / JPL / Michael Carroll)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Despite early-stage robust funding, NASA is facing serious management and schedule challenges in its ambitious Europa Clipper program that will send an orbiter and lander to Jupiter’s ice covered moon beginning in 2023.

“Specifically, NASA’s aggressive development schedule, a stringent conflict of interest process during instrument selection, and an insufficient evaluation of cost and schedule estimates has increased project integration challenges and led the Agency to accept instrument cost proposals subsequently found to be far too optimistic,” the audit found.

“Moreover, Clipper has had to compete with at least four other major JPL-managed projects for critical personnel resources, causing concern that the project may not have a sufficient workforce with the required skills at critical periods in its development cycle,” the report said.

The audit also noted that the Europa program’s biggest backer, John Culberson, no longer chairs the House appropriations subcommittee. The Republican Congressman from Texas was defeated in his reelection bid last year.

Choosing a Launcher

The audit found that the Space Launch System (SLS) would probably not be available in time for the orbiter’s planned launch in 2023. Congress has mandated the program use SLS for both missions.

Using SLS would also be more expensive than using commercially available rockets such as Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy. The audit projected cost savings of at least $276 million from using the other launchers.

Credit: NASA OIG

The cost of up to $450 million for the Falcon Heavy appears to high. SpaceX has advertised Falcon Heavy launches at between $90 million and $150 million.

“These are conservative estimates for a commercial launch during this time frame; specific launch costs for the Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy are procurement sensitive,” the audit stated.

Cost, however, is not the only factor. The report notes that SLS would be capable of doing a direct trajectory to Europa, cutting four years off the transit time. This would allow the orbiter to collect far more data at the moon before NASA launches a lander there.

Launching on a Falcon Heavy or Delta IV would require gravity assist maneuvers that would take more time and require a beefed up spacecraft.

“Launching on a commercial launch vehicle will also subject Clipper to a more severe thermal environment requiring additional thermal and ultraviolet protection, which are already designed into the spacecraft,” the audit found. “The risks associated with a gravity assist flight trajectory need to be resolved prior to the Agency establishing the project’s cost and schedule baseline.”

The report stated that NASA is studying whether the Falcon Heavy could send the orbiter on a Venus-Earth gravity assist that would reduce transit time and thermal exposure near Venus.

Complicating the choice of a booster is that if the Europa Clipper orbiter misses its planned 2023 launch date, it could not be launched the next year due to a lack of a planetary alignment.

NASA must also weight booster reliability. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launcher has flown two successful flights with no failures., with four more flights on the manifest through 2022. The audit noted the launcher would have to go through certification before it could launch the costly Europa mission.

“While the U.S. Air Force purchased Falcon Heavy launches in 2018, the vehicle would need to pass additional flight testing (known as Category-3 certification) for high priority, very high complexity,or high-cost payloads—descriptions that apply to the Europa Clipper mission,” the audit stated.

“As part of this NASA certification process, the Falcon Heavy would need to have accomplished three successful flights by the Clipper’s launch readiness date,” the audit added.

Reliability is also a concern with SLS, which is scheduled to launch for the first time in late 2020 or early 2021.

“Although the SLS will have had minimal flight history if the Europa Clipper is launched in the 2023 time frame, senior NASA managers believe the extensive quality assurance testing required to human-rate the vehicle will provide the needed confidence levels to meet the intent of commercial launch vehicle certification requirements,” the audit said.

Delta IV boosters have launched 37 times, including 10 Delta IV variants. All were successful except the first Delta IV Heavy flight, which suffered a partial failure. However, United Launch Alliance’s plan to switch to the new Vulcan Centaur booster while phasing out the Delta IV line could result in higher costs.

“To support a Clipper launch with the Delta IV Heavy, NASA would have to provide more money upfront to keep production lines open and is at risk of having to shoulder some of the cost of maintaining the site required to launch that particular rocket, potentially increasing launch costs significantly if Clipper is the last Delta IV Heavy launch,” the audit found.

To get the project back on track, the audit made 10 recommendations related to staffing, budget, schedule and related issues. NASA concurred with nine of the recommendations, but did concur with the second one.

2. Reassess the Clipper [Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level] with launch vehicle risks for the Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, and SLS prior to Key Decision Point-C and establishing the Agency Baseline Commitment.

“Management did not concur with Recommendation 2, stating that Congress directed NASA to use the SLS launch vehicle and that directive justified its decision not to model the other launch vehicles in the project’s JCL,” the audit stated.

“We disagree and find this response inconsistent with the Agency’s Cost Estimating Handbook which states that a JCL analysis should integrate cost, schedule, risk, and uncertainty. The Handbook also states that launch vehicle costs and associated risks shall be included in JCL calculations to ensure they are integrated into the entire project scope to aid management decision making,” the report added.

The audit’s recommendations follow.

Recommendations
Report Excerpt

For the Europa Clipper mission and prospective Lander mission to achieve their technical objectives, meet milestones, and control costs,we recommended the Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate:

  1. Evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements by project over the next 5 years. Assess each Center’s ability to provide needed technical staffing critical skills based on projected surplus or shortfall of personnel for current and prospective projects.
  2. Reassess the JCL with launch vehicle risks for the Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, and SLS prior to Key Decision Point-C and establishing the Agency Baseline Commitment.
  3. Evaluate the impact on the entire Planetary Science Division budget portfolio if Clipper’s increased funding levels were disrupted and develop mitigation strategies.
  4. Continue to implement the instrument cost control plan, including de-scope options,based on balancing cost and Level 1 science requirements for future missions. Include the de-scope option in JCL calculations based on an assessment of the projects’ Science Traceability and Alignment Framework.
  5. Reassess the Europa Lander prospective project timeline given resource availability, including the SLS Block 1B with the Exploration Upper Stage and the inherent project complexities of this magnitude.
  6. Evaluate the impact that starting Lander Phase-A, delaying the start date,or continuing Pre-phase A research under multiple funding scenarios would have on the entire Planetary Science Division portfolio and report those estimates to stakeholders.
  7. Consider requesting the NRC (now the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) reexamine the Lander’s priority under authority in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008.
  8. Coordinate with Congress and other stakeholders to develop achievable project timelines and corresponding funding levels to maintain a balanced science portfolio supportive of NRC priorities.

We also recommended the Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate in coordination with the Office of the General Counsel:

9. Reassess the process of isolating key project personnel from instrument selection to balance their additional insight in integration and cost estimation while maintaining fairness in the announcement and mitigating conflicts of interest risks.

To ensure JPL projects have the technical support needed for their missions, we recommended the JPL Director:

10. Evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements, make staffing adjustments to the Clipper project as necessary, and reassess Lander commitments.

The audit’s Findings in Brief section is below.

Management of NASA’s Europa Mission
Office of Inspector General
May 29, 2019
Full Report

Results in Brief

Why We Performed This Audit

Scientists believe that Europa, one of Jupiter’s 79 known moons, may have a large liquid ocean below its icy surface suitable to sustain life.The National Research Council (NRC)—which publishes a decadal survey of recommended priorities that NASA uses to help plan its science exploration missions—determined in 2011 that an orbiter mission to Europa should be NASA’s second highest priority large-scale planetary science mission after the Mars 2020 mission.

Congress has taken a strong interest in the project and since fiscal year (FY) 2013 has appropriated about $2.04billionto NASA for a Europa mission—$1.26 billion more than the Agency requested. The former Chairman of the House subcommittee that funds the Agency, a long-time advocate for NASA and the Europa mission in particular,was largely responsible for these substantial appropriations. Congress also directed NASA to plan two separate missions—a flyby orbiter known as Europa Clipper and a Lander mission to place scientific instruments on the moon’s surface. InFYs2017 and 2018, Congress directed NASA to use the Space Launch System (SLS), the Agency’s heavy-lift rocket currently under development, as the launch vehicle for both missions and specified launch dates of no later than 2022 for the orbiter and 2024 for the Lander. In February 2019,Congress delayed those launch dates by a year to 2023 and 2025, respectively. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has overall project management responsibilities for both missions.

In this audit, we examined NASA’s management of the Europa mission relative to achieving technical objectives, meeting milestones, controlling costs, and addressing congressional requirements. To complete this work, were viewed documents, reports,schedule projections, budget allocations, costs, and risks related to the Clipper and Lander projects,as well as NASA and JPL policies, congressional mandates, and NRC reports. We also compared the Europa mission with other JPL projects and interviewed Clipper and Lander personnel, other NASA officials, and members of the scientific community.

What We Found

Despite robust early-stage funding, a series of significant developmental and personnel resource challenges place the Clipper’s current mission cost estimates and planned 2023 target launch at risk. Specifically, NASA’s aggressive development schedule, a stringent conflict of interest process during instrument selection, and an insufficient evaluation of cost and schedule estimates has increased project integration challenges and led the Agency to accept instrument cost proposals subsequently found to be far too optimistic. Moreover, Clipper has had to compete with at least four other major JPL-managed projects for critical personnel resources, causing concern that the project may not have a sufficient workforce with the required skills at critical periods in its development cycle.

In addition, although Congress directed NASA to use the SLS to launch the Clipper, it is unlikely to be available by the congressionally mandated 2023 date and therefore the Agency continues to maintain spacecraft capabilities to accommodate both the SLS and two commercial launch vehicles, the Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy. The Agency also has not incorporated associated development and launch vehicle selection risks into the Clipper’s joint cost and schedule confidence level (JCL) analysis, a tool used to help determine the likelihood a project will achieve its objectives within budget and on time, thereby prolonging risks that should be resolved prior to establishing the project cost and schedule baseline. Lastly, significant funding from Congress must be maintained to avoid additional delays in the launch schedule and prevent the need to move funds from other projects in NASA’s science portfolio. Significantly, FY 2020 will be the first budget cycle in which the mission’s most important congressional supporter no longer chairs the House appropriations subcommittee.

Similar to Clipper, the Lander mission will likely face shortages in skilled technical staff given that it is competing with five other major projects at JPL, including Clipper,for the same resources, putting planned activities at risk. Moreover, when we compared the Lander’s projected development schedule to other similar NASA robotic missions, we found the congressionally mandated 2025 launch date not feasible, with the earliest possible launch in late 2026. Further, the Lander is currently designed to launch only on the upgraded version of the SLS, a vehicle whose readiness date is highly uncertain.

We also believe that requiring the Agency to pursue a Lander mission at the same time it is developing the Clipper mission is inconsistent with the NRC’s recommended science exploration priorities. Specifically,the most recent decadal survey does not include a Europa Lander mission, such a mission will not provide the most optimal science results for the money spent if launched before adequate information is obtained from Clipper,and moving forward with a Lander at the present time would negatively affect the balance and budget of other projects in the planetary science portfolio. Finally, the Lander will essentially require doubling the amount of recent increases in congressional funding the Clipper mission has received while the two projects overlap.The Agency’s FY 2020 budget request includes no funding for the Lander and we believe at this point, NASA can utilize the benefits gained from the Lander’s preliminary research and commit to the project when the science community makes it a priority and resources are available.

What We Recommended

For the Europa mission to achieve its technical objectives, meet milestones, and control costs, we recommended the Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate (1) evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements by project over the next 5 years; (2) reassess the Clipper JCL with launch vehicle risks for the Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, and SLS; (3) evaluate the impact to the Planetary Science Division budget portfolio if Clipper’s increased funding levels were disrupted; (4)continue to implement the instrument cost control plan; (5) reassess the Lander project’s timeline given resource availability; (6) evaluate the impact that starting Lander Phase-A, delaying the start date, or continuing Pre-phase A research under multiple funding scenarios would have on the entire planetary science portfolio; (7) consider requesting the NRC reexamine the Lander’s priority; and (8) coordinate with Congress and other stakeholders to develop achievable project timelines and corresponding funding levels to maintain a balanced science portfolio supportive of NRC priorities. We also recommended the Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate,in coordination with the Office of the General Counsel,reassess the process of isolating key project personnel from instrument selection. Finally, we recommended the JPL Director evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements, make staffing adjustments to the Clipper project as necessary, and reassess Lander commitments.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with 9 of our 10 recommendations and described corrective actions it has taken or will take. We consider management’s comments to all but Recommendation 2 responsive; therefore, those recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions. Management did not concur with Recommendation 2 related to reassessing launch vehicle risks and this recommendation will remain unresolved pending further discussion with the Agency.