IG Audit: NASA Planetary Program Faces Major Financial, Managerial Challenges

Dragonfly flying over the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) faces a series of managerial, financial and personnel challenges as it prepares to conduct a series of ever more ambitious missions to the moon and planets, according to a new audit by the space agency’s Office of Inspector General (IG).

The IG report found:

  • life-cycle costs are increasing due to project management challenges and the increasing complexity of approved missions;
  • rising life-cycle costs will make it more difficult to sustain technical capabilities to support the missions and to fund technology development projects;
  • the Commercial Launch Provider Services (CLPS) program has taken unnecessary risks by not conducting proper due diligence on private companies selected to bid on missions to deliver NASA payloads to the moon;
  • the space agency lacks a common interface for attaching payloads to CLPS spacecraft;
  • it could take the Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) Program another 20 years to categorize objects that might pose a threat to the planet;
  • NASA has insufficient funds to repair, maintain, and modernize the Deep Space Network (DNS) that communications with spacecraft; and
  • NASA faces a wave of retirements that will take away much needed knowledge and skills.

The IG audit reported that Dragonfly, which will send a drone to explore Saturn’s moon Titan, has an estimated life-cycle cost of $2 billion. Dragonfly is a mission under NASA’s New Frontiers mission.

“Comparatively, prior New Frontiers missions such as Juno and the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) had life-cycle costs of roughly $1 billion each,” the document said. “These increasing costs, if not addressed, may result in a reduced cadence of future missions given budget limitations that will mean fewer opportunities to demonstrate new technologies.”

Overview of the ESA–NASA Mars Sample Return mission. (Credit: ESA–K. Oldenburg)

Other costly projects planned for the 2020’s include the Mars Sample Return mission with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Europa Clipper orbiter and lander that twill explore Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa.

NASA’s CLPS program outsources the delivery of agency and private experiments and instruments to the lunar surface to private companies that will build the vehicles and manage the missions on firm-fixed cost contracts.

Jim Bridenstine (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has described CLPS flights as “shots on goal,” meaning they will not all succeed and that risks are higher than on traditional agency-managed missions.

Still, the audit criticized NASA’s CLPS program for “accepting higher risk than necessary…because it did not establish a common interface to allow lunar payloads to integrate with the landers from selected CLPS contractors, as advised by the National Academies.

“Additionally, contrary to Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) guidelines, CLPS contracting personnel did not perform due diligence when awarding contracts to partners with risky business and financial histories and prior performance issues,” the report said.

Three of the nine companies selected to bid on the first CLPS task order — Firefly Aerospace, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond — had “a history of unsatisfactory performance records or a previous inability to obtain adequate financial resources to support government contracts,” the audit found.

Nova-C lander on the lunar surface. (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

CLPS missions awarded to Astrobotics worth $79.5 million and Intuitive Machines worth $77.2 million lack safety and mission assurance plans to as required under federal contracting regulations, the IG found.

“NASA has stated that the nature of the CLPS Task Order 2 is akin to a delivery by common carrier, similar
to an express cargo service, and therefore does not require a PQASP or even a risk assessment. We
disagree and believe the CLPS task orders meet the ‘critical’ criteria under NASA policy,” the document said.

In 2005, NASA was directed by Congress to detect, catalog and characterize 90 percent of near Earth objects (NEOs) at least 140 meters in diameter by 2020.

Credit: NASA Office of Inspector General

Due in large part to NASA under funding the program, the space agency has only cataloged an estimated 35 percent of these objects, the audit found. It could take the space agency another 20 years until 2040 to complete a task it was given in 2005.

The IG also criticized NASA for insufficient oversight of grants intended to facilitate observing and cataloging NEOs. Investigators identified improper use of grant funding provided for the ATLAS and Arecibo observatories located in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, respectively.

“Though part of the awards to ATLAS and Arecibo may have supported science research, the majority of
the funds were inappropriately directed to facility construction, operations, and maintenance,” the audit stated.

Despite making progress, NASA has also under funded improvements to its aging global network of DSN antennas that communicates with spacecraft scattered across across the solar system.

“Despite this progress, budget constraints will make it difficult for DSN to maintain its current performance levels while also completing the necessary upgrades to support future PSD missions,” the document said. “Specifically, DSN’s annual budget has been cut several times in the past decade and has not improved significantly above its 2012 appropriation of $208 million.

“Moreover, the DSN budget could be further impacted by the Space Communications and Navigation reduced budget request of $126 million (27 percent) anticipated between FYs 2020 through 2023,” the audit said.

The IG made 11 recommendations to address the challenges identified in the audit (see list below).

“We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with our recommendations and described planned actions to address them,” the report said. “We consider the proposed actions responsive to our recommendations and will close the recommendations upon verification and completion of the actions.”

The audit’s Findings in Brief and Recommendations sections follow.

NASA’S Planetary Science Portfolio

Office of Inspector General
Report No. IG-20-023
September 16, 2020
Full Report

Results in Brief

Why We Performed This Audit

NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) is responsible for a portfolio of spacecraft, including orbiters, landers, rovers, and probes, that seek to advance our understanding of the solar system by exploring the Earth’s Moon, other planets and their moons, asteroids and comets, and the icy bodies beyond Pluto.

Currently, the planetary science portfolio consists of 30 space flight missions in various stages of operation. PSD missions fall under three categories: Discovery (small-class missions with development costs capped at $500 million); New Frontiers (medium-class missions with estimated development costs under $1 billion); and Flagship (large-class missions costing several billion dollars).

With a proposed budget averaging $2.8 billion annually for the next 5 years, PSD is forecasted to maintain the largest budget of the six divisions within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate while supporting a wide range of exploration and research activities recommended by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (National Academies) or mandated by Congress.

Over the coming decade, NASA is planning to launch missions to return planetary samples from Mars, send spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan, and work with commercial vendors to send multiple landers to Earth’s Moon.

In this audit, we assessed NASA’s management of its planetary science portfolio and examined whether PSD is meeting established goals and priorities. Specifically, we evaluated whether the planetary science portfolio is

(1) addressing the National Academies’ recommendations;

(2) maintaining and enhancing its infrastructure, including workforce, support facilities, and technology

(3) achieving technical objectives; and

(4) satisfying congressional requirements.

To complete this work, we interviewed PSD and other NASA officials, reviewed the status of PSD missions, and reviewed relevant federal and NASA policies and procedures.

What We Found

PSD has taken positive steps in response to recommendations and goals outlined by the National Academies, including actions to

(1) implement recommended missions;

(2) meet spending goals in the areas of research and analysis, and technology development;

(3) address Mars Exploration Program challenges; and

(4) further develop radioisotope power.

However, as NASA’s planetary science missions become more complex, the life-cycle costs within each of PSD’s three mission classes are increasing due to project management challenges and mission complexity. For example, Dragonfly, the next New Frontiers mission, has an estimated $2 billion life-cycle cost.

Comparatively, prior New Frontiers missions such as Juno and the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) had life-cycle costs of roughly $1 billion each. These increasing costs, if not addressed, may result in a reduced cadence of future missions given budget limitations that will mean fewer opportunities to demonstrate new technologies.

While PSD and the Centers are focused on meeting current mission needs, they are at risk of neglecting investments that would help ensure long-term maintenance of NASA’s unique planetary science infrastructure. These include

(1) sustaining technical capabilities to support future mission needs;

(2) a workforce facing increasing risk from an impending wave of retirements that is exacerbated by the lack of sufficient workforce data for management to make informed decisions, challenges associated with transfer of knowledge, and limited awareness of hiring authority best practices;

(3) a lack of adequate funding to repair, maintain, and modernize the Deep Space Network, which provides tracking, telemetry, and command services for deep space missions; and

(4) funding mid-level technology development.

Moreover, the lack of a cohesive “One NASA” approach by stakeholders, including Center management, Mission Directorate management, and NASA’s technical workforce, is hindering the Agency’s ability to identify, prioritize, and address longer-term risks to planetary science infrastructure.

In examining discrete planetary science missions, the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP) is accepting higher risk than necessary in the Commercial Launch Provider Services (CLPS) project, which provides contracts to U.S. commercial entities to develop landers to deliver NASA science instruments and other payloads to the Moon’s surface.

Specifically, LDEP has not established a common interface to integrate lunar payloads with the landers from selected CLPS contractors, as advised by the National Academies. Additionally, contracting personnel did not evaluate past performance and financial history risks during their evaluation of prospective CLPS contractors and instead relied on contractors self-certifying future funding availability despite poor business, financial histories, and prior performance.

Finally, NASA did not develop safety and mission assurance plans for relevant CLPS task order awards, as required by NASA policy and FAR guidelines. If not adequately addressed, these risks could result in mission failure and the loss of NASA payloads and significant taxpayer investment.

Finally, the Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) Program resources remain insufficient to meet the program’s congressional mandate of cataloging near-Earth objects (NEO). Scientists classify comets and asteroids that pass within 28 million miles of Earth’s orbit as NEOs. In 2005, Congress mandated that NASA detect, track, catalogue, and characterize 90 percent of the NEOs equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter.

However, the Agency has consistently underfunded the NEOO Program. Without substantially increased funding to build a space-based infrared telescope, NASA will likely not meet the mandate until 2040—20 years after the original 2020 goal.

Additionally, we identified specific instances of inappropriate use of grants for the construction of telescopes and operation and maintenance of an observatory where a contract would be more appropriate and would provide NASA greater oversight and the ability to minimize risks of improper spending.

What We Recommended

To improve NASA’s management of its planetary science portfolio, we made 11 recommendations to the Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate and Chief Human Capital Officer, including to:

(1) communicate to the National Academies realistic costs of planetary science missions and consider resetting the cost caps;

(2) identify solutions to adequately fund and sustain critical discipline capabilities;

(3) complete an assessment of the Deep Space Network’s infrastructure in order to develop and implement a maintenance and upgrade plan to support PSD missions;

(4) establish a common interface between instrument and spacecraft for CLPS contractors;

(5) evaluate and monitor CLPS contractors’ performance and financial capabilities risk; and

(6) reassess NEOO Program’s priority in meeting the goal of cataloging 90 percent of the NEOs larger than 140 meters.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management, who concurred with all of our recommendations. We consider management’s comments responsive; therefore, the recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon verification and completion of the proposed corrective actions.

Recommendations, Management Response, and Our Evaluation

To improve NASA’s management of its planetary science portfolio, we recommend the Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate direct the PSD Director do the following:

1. Communicate to the National Academies realistic costs of planetary science missions and
consider resetting the cost caps and/or the cadence of PSD missions to reflect rising mission costs.

2. In coordination with the Office of Chief Financial Officer, engage relevant Centers and technical
capability leaders to identify budgetary and accounting system solutions within the current
budgetary and full cost accounting system to adequately fund and sustain critical technical
discipline capabilities needed to support current and future projects.

3. In coordination with the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, review and identify opportunities based on existing NASA leading practices to foster and monitor mentoring to ensure a robust pipeline for PSD-related disciplines.

4. In coordination with Space Communications and Navigation, complete an assessment of DSN’s infrastructure in order to develop and implement a maintenance and upgrade plan to support PSD missions.

5. In coordination with the Space Technology Mission Directorate, evaluate each Directorate’s respective roles in basic research that may affect PSD projects and identify opportunities to advance technologies through flight demonstrations.

6. Reassess the NEOO Program’s priority in meeting the goal of cataloging 90 percent of the NEOs
larger than 140 meters, establish cost and schedule estimate with proposed funding profile to meet the NEOO’s goal of cataloging, and coordinate with Congress and request funding to support the implementation goal.

7. In coordination with the NASA Shared Services Center, comply with the Federal Grant and
Cooperative Agreements Act of 1977 on the proper use of grants and contracts to allow Center
and Program personnel greater visibility into partner operations and to ensure that funding
levels and performance are commensurate with requirements.

To reduce risks with the CLPS project, we recommend the Associate Administrator for Science Mission
Directorate direct the Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration do the following:

8. Implement the National Academies recommendation to establish a common interface for CLPS contractors between instrument and spacecraft or to require that each commercial provider supply a document that describes provider and payload capabilities.

9. In coordination with CLPS contracting personnel, establish procedures for evaluation, periodic re-evaluation, and monitoring of current and prospective CLPS contractors’ past performance and financial capabilities risk, and steps to mitigate those risks when applicable.

10. Comply with NASA policy to establish program/project quality assurance surveillance plans, or its intent thereof, for all applicable CLPS task orders.

To improve NASA’s guidance, communications, and management controls of special hiring authorities to
help fill or retain critical knowledge and disciplines, we also recommend the Chief Human Capital Officer, in coordination with Center management and technical capability leaders do the following:

11. Develop procedures for periodic communication of the available hiring authorities, including but not limited to NEX and Pathways, guidance regarding the use of hiring authorities and the tools resident on USAJOBS.gov, monitoring of usage, and identifying and reporting usage challenges to Center and senior management.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with our recommendations and described planned actions to address them. We consider the proposed actions responsive to our recommendations and will close the recommendations upon verification and completion of the actions.

Management’s full response to our report is reproduced in Appendix C. Technical comments provided by management and revisions to address them have been incorporated as appropriate.