Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
A new Government Accountability Office audit [pdf] that reviewed 22 major NASA projects, including Orion and SLS, has found that many of them have significant scheduling and cost problems.
Let’s just go through them all:
- SLS: “The SLS program’s schedule is deteriorating and it is at increased risk of exceeding its cost baseline and missing its November 2018 launch readiness date.”
- Orion: “The Orion program is increasingly at risk of missing the November 2018 launch date for its first uncrewed exploration mission.”
- Mars 2020: “The Mars 2020 project has not met key best practices for reducing product development risk.”
- Asteroid Redirect Robot Mission (ARRM): “In August 2016, the ARRM project entered the preliminary design and technology completion phase with a higher cost and longer schedule than previously estimated.”
- Europa Clipper: “At the project’s most recent decision review, its independent review board stated that it was at risk of exceeding its preliminary cost and schedule ranges unless its scope or complexity was reduced.”
- Ground Systems (EGS) upgrade: “The EGS program’s schedule is deteriorating and it is at increased risk of exceeding its cost baseline and missing its November 2018 launch readiness date.”
- ICESat-2: “The ICESat-2 project has encountered problems with the flight lasers in its sole instrument—the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS)—that will likely cause it to miss its committed launch date and could cause it to exceed its current cost baseline.”
- InSight: “The InSight project missed its committed launch date of March 2016 and exceeded its cost baseline due to technical issues with its primary science payload—the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument—which is contributed by the French space agency (CNES).”
- Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICE): “The ICON project has experienced technical issues and delays in system integration and testing, but it still on track to launch in July 2017—3 months earlier than its committed launch date.”
- James Webb Space Telescope: “In December 2016, we found that the primary threat to the JWST project continues to be the ability of the observatory development and integration contractor, Northrop Grumman, to control its costs.”
- Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI): “NASA’s joint cost and schedule confidence level analysis indicated that the likelihood of the project meeting the date is low and the project’s independent review board described the schedule as optimistic when compared to similar instruments. … The RBI project’s prime contractor Harris continues to experience cost overruns.”
- Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS): “The SGSS project has exceeded the new cost and schedule baseline NASA set for it in June 2015 and further cost and schedule growth is likely.”
Not all the projects audited were a disaster. GRACE-FO, Landsat-9, NISA, Solar Probe Plus, SWOT, TESS, and WFIRST have few significant problems, though even with these there have been delays with each project still facing significant cost and scheduling risks.
As for Commercial Crew, the audit notes delays and problems, but these appear to be mostly linked to the bureaucratic and somewhat unjustified demands by NASA for increased safety, such as the agency’s refusal to accept the use of the Atlas 5 with a Russian first stage engine and its concerns about SpaceX’s plans to fuel the rocket with astronauts on-board (even though astronauts have been aboard fueled rockets with every other manned launch for the entire history of space exploration).
Overall, this audit does not speak well of either NASA’s management or the contractors with whom the agency has routinely worked. Space engineering is hard, but many of these problems seem more related to either incompetence or a willingness of NASA to forgive bad work too often. The number of contractors or government agencies listed here who have failed entirely at their jobs is appalling.