NASA’s PACE Mission Moves Forward Despite Efforts to Kill it

PACE satellite (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite has continued to move forward toward an early 2024 launch despite attempts by Trump Administration, according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Administration has refused to request funding for the $889.7 million project in its annual budget proposals to Congress. The Administration believes the funding would be better spent elsewhere.

However, Congress has continued to fund PACE, allowing NASA to continue to make progress on the climate satellite. However, it hasn’t been easy.

“Project officials said budget uncertainty has made it more challenging to find vendors willing to work with the project, which has resulted in the project receiving only one offer in response to about half of its competitive solicitations,” the GAO assessment said.

PACE mission (Credit: NASA)

“Despite funding uncertainty, the project is holding cost and schedule reserves consistent with NASA center policy,” the document added.

PACE will be a polar-orbiting satellite that will use advanced remote-sensing instruments to gather data about ocean biology, biogeochemistry, ecology, aerosols, and cloud properties. Scientists will use the data to identify harmful algae blooms and study long-term climate trends.

GAO assessment of PACE follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees

Government Accountability Office
April 2020

Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem

Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) is a polar-orbiting mission that will use advanced global remote-sensing instruments to improve scientists’ understanding of ocean biology, biogeochemistry, ecology, aerosols, and cloud properties.

PACE will extend climate-related observations begun under earlier NASA missions, which will enable researchers to study long-term trends on Earth’s oceans and atmosphere, and ocean-atmosphere interactions. PACE will also enable assessments of air and coastal water quality, such as the locations of harmful algae blooms.

Project Summary

The PACE project entered the implementation phase and formally established its cost and schedule baselines in August 2019. The project set a baseline lifecycle cost of $889.7 million and a launch date of January 2024. The baseline is $39.7 million above the top-end of the project’s preliminary cost estimate and is 9 months later than its preliminary schedule estimate.

Similar to the previous 2 years, NASA did not request funding for PACE in its fiscal year 2020 budget request, but the explanatory statement accompanying the 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act stated that the agreement included $131 million for PACE.

A separate committee report related to the Act directed NASA to include adequate funding for PACE in the 2021 budget request, but NASA did not request funding for PACE in its fiscal year 2021 budget request.

Despite funding uncertainty, the project is holding cost and schedule reserves consistent with NASA center policy and held its preliminary design review in June 2019 with mature technologies, as recommended by best practices.

Moreover, PACE has taken actions to reduce risks to its mission, such as producing high-fidelity engineering models for parts of its main instrument.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The PACE project entered the implementation phase and
formally established its cost and schedule baselines in August 2019. The project set a baseline lifecycle cost of $889.7 million and a launch date of January 2024, which is $39.7 million above the top-end of the project’s preliminary cost estimate of $850 million and 9 months later than its preliminary schedule estimate of April 2023.

The project continues to be cost-capped but NASA added
$33.8 million to the project’s baseline to account for a
2.5-month delay from the fiscal year 2019 government
shutdown and interest payments on outstanding contractor invoices.

For example, NASA reported that the shutdown delayed contractor deliverables because the project could not provide direction or funding on project activities. NASA calculated the project’s joint cost and schedule confidence level—the likelihood a project will meet its cost and schedule estimates—as greater than 70 percent, as generally required by NASA policy.

Similar to the previous 2 years, NASA did not request
funding for PACE in its fiscal year 2020 budget request,
but the explanatory statement accompanying the 2020
Consolidated Appropriations Act stated that the agreement included $131 million for PACE.

A separate committee report related to the Act directed NASA to include adequate funding for PACE in the 2021 budget request, but NASA did not request funding for PACE in its fiscal year 2021 budget request.

Project officials said budget uncertainty has made it more challenging to find vendors willing to work with the project, which has resulted in the project receiving only one offer in response to about half of its competitive solicitations. Despite funding uncertainty, the project is holding cost and schedule reserves consistent with NASA center policy.

Technology and Design

PACE held its preliminary design review in June 2019 with all of its reported technologies matured to level 6, which is the level recommended by best practices. However, the project’s main instrument—the Ocean Color Instrument (OCI), which will characterize global ocean biogeochemical cycling, ecosystem function, and aerosol-ocean dynamics—employs heritage components but, as a whole, has never been built before.

The project is mitigating risks to flight development of the OCI by producing high-fidelity engineering models and proactively buying hardware to use as backups, if needed. The standing review board identified these actions as the project’s strengths.

However, the OCI is driving the project’s schedule and the standing review board noted at the preliminary design review that various schedule metrics indicated the project was lagging behind OCI’s baseline schedule by at least a year.

As of January 2020, the project has at least 9 months of
schedule reserves that can be used should further delays
materialize. NASA acknowledged this risk when setting the project’s baseline by maintaining NASA headquarters-held cost reserves to defray potential launch delay costs.

Launch

The project did not find a partner mission to share a launch vehicle, which project officials said would have significantly reduced costs. Instead, NASA’s launch services program announced it had selected SpaceX to launch the spacecraft for approximately $80.4 million. This amount includes both the launch service and other mission related costs. This amount is within the project’s budget to buy its own launch vehicle.

Development Partner

NASA reported that it signed agreements with the
Netherlands Institute for Space Research and the
University of Maryland-Baltimore County for two contributed polarimeter instruments, which will augment PACE’s primary science objectives. The two polarimeters will characterize aerosols and clouds beyond what is required of the OCI.

The mission success of each instrument is the responsibility of the partner rather than the PACE project. Both polarimeters are working toward a pre-environmental review in 2020. This review is a prerequisite to begin environmental testing.