by Douglas Messier
NASA’s $1 billion Restore-L mission to refuel the aging Landsat 7 satellite is running about $300 million over budget and almost three years behind schedule, according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The project’s woes have included a shortage of both funding and skilled personnel as well as the addition of a new instrument with immature technology to the satellite servicing spacecraft.
In April 2017, NASA estimated Restore-L could be ready for launch between June and December 2020. The program is currently working toward a launch in December 2023.
“The reasons are twofold. First, the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) proposed budget for the past 2 years has not allowed the project to work to its original funding plan,” the assessment said.
“Second, STMD directed the project to add a new payload—known as the SPace Infrastructure DExterous Robot (SPIDER)— in April 2019. The new payload intends to demonstrate on-orbit assembly and installation of an antenna,” the report added.
“The Restore-L project has six remaining technologies that it needs to mature. Prior to adding the SPIDER payload in 2019, the project had one remaining technology—the vision navigation system—that it needed to mature,” GAO said.
NASA’s original cost estimate for Restore-L was $626 to $753 million. The budget has since risen to $1.043 billion.
GAO’s assessment of the Restore-L mission follows.
NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees
Government Accountability Office
The Restore-L project will demonstrate the capability to refuel on-orbit satellites for eventual use by commercial entities and on-orbit assembly and installation of an antenna. 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. NASA plans to incorporate elements of the core Restore-L technologies into its lunar exploration campaign, such as for refueling the Lunar Gateway.
The Restore-L project is no longer working to preliminary cost and schedule estimates that NASA approved when the project entered the preliminary design phase, largely due to issues related to funding and the late addition of a new payload.
NASA has not yet approved a cost and schedule baseline for the program, but the program is now working to a launch readiness date of December 2023. This is almost 3 years after the launch readiness date estimate at KDP-B.
The project expects its preliminary cost estimate of $1,043 million to increase once it establishes a cost baseline in order to reflect the extension in schedule. In addition, the project has experienced programmatic challenges, including not having sufficient cost reserves to address risks and workforce shortages that have led to delays in some of Restore-L’s subsystems.
Cost and Schedule Status
The Restore-L project is no longer working to preliminary cost and schedule estimates that NASA approved when the project entered the preliminary design phase.
The reasons are twofold. First, the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) proposed budget for the past 2 years has not allowed the project to work to its original funding plan.
In April 2017, NASA set a projected launch readiness date between June and December 2020. However, the funding profile STMD has proposed for the project does not allow the project to maintain this launch date.
Second, STMD directed the project to add a new payload—known as the SPace Infrastructure DExterous Robot (SPIDER)— in April 2019. The new payload intends to demonstrate on-orbit assembly and installation of an antenna.
As a result of the direction to add SPIDER and delays on Restore-L’s key subsystems, the project has replanned its launch readiness date to December 2023. This is about 3 years later than the project’s estimate at key decision point-B.
As of January 2020, the project reports that it is maintaining schedule reserves above guidelines based on this new launch readiness date. However, the project also reports that its current level of funding does not include sufficient cost reserves for fiscal year 2020. As a result, project officials do not anticipate having sufficient cost reserves to address risks and unforeseen technical challenges as they occur.
In addition, project officials stated that they anticipate that life-cycle costs will increase above the project’s prior estimate in order to support a later launch date. NASA has not yet approved a cost and schedule baseline for this project.
In addition, the project experienced workforce challenges in June 2019 that led to delays on its key subsystems and the use of about 4 months of schedule reserves.
The project has had a shortage of both government and contractor staff, and as a result has not had staff with the unique skills required to develop its robotics system, as well as in other key areas.
Project officials said that reasons for the workforce challenges include a loss of engineering support contactors after the Goddard Space Flight Center awarded a new support contract, uncertainty in funding, and the long timeline for hiring civil servants.
The project plans to mitigate these challenges by working with the center to obtain more skilled contractor support and hiring more civil
The Restore-L project has six remaining technologies that it needs to mature. Prior to adding the SPIDER payload in 2019, the project had one remaining technology—the vision navigation system—that it needed to mature.
The project did not mature this technology to a technology readiness level 6 by the project’s preliminary design review in November 2017 as recommended by best practices because the system was newly added by the project. The project has since reported that the vision navigation system has achieved a technology readiness level 6.
After adding the SPIDER payload in 2019, the project added six new critical technologies that are not yet mature. Project officials said that they aim to mature these technologies to technology readiness level 6 or above before Restore-L launches.
Project Office Comments
In commenting on a draft of this assessment, Restore-L project officials said that technology demonstration missions are not expected to achieve a technology readiness level 6 by preliminary design review, but will be mature later in the project’s lifecycle. Officials expected this progression of technology maturity based on the nature of the mission.
Officials also provided technical comments on a draft of this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.