Report: NASA Needs to Improve Management of Major Projects

An artist’s concept of the 2012 Mars Curiosity Landing. Mars 2020 will use a nearly identical landing system, but with added precision from the Lander Vision System. (Credits: NASA Image /JPL-Caltech)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s culture of excessive optimism and its tendency to underestimate technical challenges combine with funding instability to cause cost overruns and schedule delays, according to a new report from the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The document identified NASA’s management of major projects as one of the space agency’s top seven performance challenges. [Full Report]

“While NASA continues to stand at the forefront of aeronautics, science, and space exploration, many of the Agency’s major projects—those with an estimated life-cycle cost of more than $250 million—cost significantly more and take much longer to complete than originally planned. Cost increases and schedule slippage with major ongoing projects such as the Mars 2020 mission, James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the SLS can have a cascading effect across other NASA projects,” the report said.

“Since its first annual assessment in 2009, GAO has consistently reported on cost growth and schedule delays in the Agency’s major projects,” the report added. “For example, in its 2019 assessment GAO found that cost and schedule performance of major projects had deteriorated over the prior year with 9 of 17 projects in development reporting an average cost growth of 27.6 percent over the Agency Baseline Commitment and average launch delays of approximately 13 months.”

JWST, which is a follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, WST, was $4.4 billion over budget and 81 months behind schedule as of May. The overruns have squeezed out money for other science programs.

NASA’s Mars program has been hit by multiple overruns and delays. In 2009, the space agency missed the window to launch the Mars Science Laboratory. The two-year delay for the next launch window raised the program’s costs by 86 percent from $969 million to about $1.8 billion.

“For its follow-on rover mission, in May 2019 the Agency notified Congress that the Mars 2020 project may need more than $100 million more than its original FY 2020 budget request for design modifications and rework to resolve technical issues and complete development ahead of the project’s planned July 2020 launch date,” the report stated.

Key IG Recommendations Implemented by NASA
Reassess the [Europa] Clipper 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.

Establish more rigorous cost and schedule estimates for the SLS and EGS programs for the Artemis 2 mission mapped to available resources and future budget assumptions and independently reviewed by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

Design a strategy for collaborating with international space agencies in their cislunar space exploration efforts with a focus on advancing key systems and capabilities needed for Mars exploration

Continue to work with international partners facing project funding issues, including developing alternate options to mitigate delivery delays and potentially reduce technical capability or non inclusion of the instruments

The OIG said a lack of serious consequences was a factor in NASA’s tendency to underestimate cost and complexity.

“Furthermore, few projects in NASA’s recent past have been canceled because of poor cost and schedule performance, and this reality fosters a ‘too big to fail’ mentality that pervades Agency thinking when it comes to NASA’s larger and most important missions,” the report said.

“However, this culture may be beginning to change. In July 2019, the Administrator cited unrealistic cost and schedule estimates as a reason for removing two top executives within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate,” the document added.

The OIG is referencing NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s decision to remove Bill Gerstenmaier and a deputy from their positions overseeing that human spaceflight directorate.

NASA has not always received funding from Congress or the President that it needs to carry out programs properly, resulting in delays and cost overruns.

“Conversely, a large influx of unplanned funding can also create challenges,” the report said. “For example, although early funding by Congress provided the Europa mission with opportunities to invest in technically challenging areas and ‘buy down’ risk, the influx of money resulted in an aggressive schedule during instrument selection that increased project integration challenges.”

Although the space agency has made some progress in addressing these problems, much more needs to be done.

“NASA must redouble its efforts to ensure that its science and space exploration projects meet cost, schedule, and performance goals. Given a limited budget to fund multiple ambitious projects, it is critical that NASA implement planned changes to its JCL [Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level] policy, as well as demonstrate sustained progress completing initiatives in its December 2018 corrective action plan,” the OIG wrote.

“Furthermore, as the Agency seeks to implement an expedited timetable with the Artemis program to land humans on the Moon by 2024, this challenge presents NASA with an opportunity to fundamentally change how it develops and manages major projects,” the report added.

In his response, Bridenstine said the space agency is taking steps to improve its management.

“As NASA carries out the Administration’s exploration plans, the Agency has been making steady progress on improving program planning and control and increasing transparency for external shareholders,” he wrote. “NASA leadership continues to evaluate the Corrective Action Plan (CAP) intended to address long-standing issues in this area and is proceeding forward with a potential update to the CAP in 2020.”

“NASA is also making substantial progress in implementation oof the Program Management and Accountability Act, specifically with regard to the assessment and improvement of program and project management practices for flight operations,” Bridenstine said.

“Furthermore, the Science Mission Directorate is launching an approximately seven-month Large Mission Study (LMS) in order to make and implement selected recommendations to ensure SMD is more successful at delivering large strategic missions on time and within budget,” he added.

Key IG Recommendations Not Implemented by NASA
Evaluate the impact on the entire Planetary Science Division budget portfolio if [Europa] Clipper’s increased funding levels were disrupted and develop mitigation strategies

Require all Standing Review Boards to explicitly monitor and document variances from NASA’s JCL policy specifically regarding international partners and launch vehicle risks and their potential cost and schedule impacts

Include cost as a factor in NASA’s Journey to Mars feasibility studies when assessing various missions and systems

Bridenstine said NASA is working to implement three OIG recommendations the report said have not been addressed.

IG Ongoing and Anticipated Future Audit Work

NASA’s Management of the Mobile Launcher
This audit is examining the status of Mobile Launcher 1 as well as NASA’s development plans for Mobile Launcher 2 and the extent to which the EGS Program is meeting cost, schedule, and performance goals related to the Mobile Launchers.

NASA’s Efforts to Manage Space Launch System Program Costs and Contracts

This audit is evaluating how the SLS Program is tracking and reporting overall costs as well as NASA’s effectiveness in controlling cost growth for four major SLS contracts, including the RS-25 engines, solid rocket boosters, and upper stage.

Audit of Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle
This audit is examining NASA’s management of the Orion Program and its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Corporation, and the extent to which NASA is meeting cost, schedule, performance, and affordability goals for the Artemis program.