GAO wants the FAA to exert more control over future launch mishap investigations

We’re here to help you! A new GAO report now calls for the FAA to change how it does investigations after launch mishaps, both exerting more control of the investigations as well as demanding companies release more proprietary information after the investigation is complete.

The Government Accountability Office wants the FAA to improve how it investigates space launch mishaps, especially how it decides whether to do an investigation itself or allow the operator to do it. Historically operators are allowed to investigate their own mishaps under FAA supervision, but over the course of 50 mishaps since 2000, GAO found the FAA has not evaluated whether that’s an effective approach. GAO also champions creating a mechanism for sharing lessons learned among operators even though efforts in the past have not succeeded.

This GAO report proves several conclusions I have noted in the past year.

First, the so-called “investigation” by the FAA into the first Starship/Superheavy launch was utterly bogus, as I have repeatedly suggested. The FAA had no ability to do any investigations on its own. It merely rubber-stamped SpaceX’s conclusions, but did so as slowly as possible so as to delay the company’s effort. Before Joe Biden was installed as president, the FAA would quickly permit further launches once a company completed its investigation. Under Biden, that policy has changed to slow-walk approvals.

This also means the present “investigation” by the FAA into the second Starship/Superheavy launch is bogus as well. When SpaceX announces its investigation is complete and all engineering fixes have been accomplished, any further delay from the FAA will be entirely political.

Second, it appears the Biden administration is applying pressure to both the GAO and the FAA to increase this regulatory control. It wants the FAA to write new procedures for determining when it will take control of an investigation rather than let the company do it. While providing some clarity to this decision could be beneficial, it is likely this change under the Biden administration will work against free enterprise. It will give the government a procedure for grabbing control, and holding it for as long as it desires. Politics will become part of any mishap investigation, rather than leaving it solely to engineering.

Third, the desire of the goverment to make companies reveal the details of the investigation, including propertiary information, will only squelch future innovation. Why develop new technology if you will be forced to give it away free during testing, when things are certain to go wrong?

GAO blasts NASA for purposely failing to control the budget of its SLS rocket

In a new report [pdf] released yesterday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) strongly blasted NASA’s non-budgeting process for financing the costs for this SLS rocket, which appear specifically designed to allow those costs to rise uncontrollably.

This one sentence from the report says it all:

NASA does not plan to measure production costs to monitor the affordability of the SLS program.

That non-plan is actually in direct defiance of four different reports by both the GAO and NASA’s inspector general over the past decade, all of which found that NASA was not using standard budgeting practices with SLS and which all demanded it do so forthwith. As this new report notes in reviewing this history, in every case NASA failed to follow these recommendations, and instead created budgetary methods designed to instead obscure the program’s cost.

This report notes that NASA continues to do so.
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GAO finds more NASA cost overruns in Webb, SLS, and Orion

GAO graph documenting NASA's big project delays and cost overruns

The annual Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report on major NASA-led programs has found that the cost overruns and scheduling problems it has documented now for years continued in 2020.

You can obtain the report here. The graph to the left, from the report, summarizes the data quite succinctly.

The cumulative cost overrun of 20 major programs in development, defined as those with total costs of at least $250 million, grew to more than $9.6 billion in the report. Three programs — the James Webb Space Telescope, Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System — account for $8 billion of that total, including $4.4 billion for JWST alone.

SLS and the Exploration Ground Systems program accounted for effectively all of the $1.1 billion in overruns in 2020. … SLS alone accounted for nearly $990 million in cost increases. About two-thirds of that increase came from NASA adopting a GAO recommendation to lower the original baseline cost estimate for SLS to properly account for work that had been shifted to later phases of the program.

The report also documented almost 20 years of cumulative delays, with Webb leading the way with delays of more than seven years. The new report added 37 more months of delays during the last year.

The report, and NASA, laid the blame for many of the more recent delays and cost overruns on last year’s COVID epidemic, but if so those delays were imposed by choice, not necessity, considering how both China and SpaceX moved forward without any delays during the same time period. In reporting on NASA for the last three decades I have found it willing to initiate long delays at the drop of a hat, sometimes for reasons, such as a storm that causes some minor damage, that do not justify either the delay or its length. The COVID panic was just another example of this.

GAO predicts more delays and cost increases in NASA’s big projects

The Government Accountability Office is predicting more delays and cost increases for most of NASA’s big projects in its tenth annual report.

The cost and schedule performance” of NASA’s major projects “has deteriorated, but the extent of cost deterioration is unknown” because NASA does not have a cost estimate for Orion. Orion is “one of the largest projects in the portfolio” and NASA “expects cost growth.”

As for schedule, “the average launch delay for the portfolio was 12 months, the highest delay GAO has reported in its 10 years” of making these assessments. GAO said the 12-month average delay is up from 7 months in last year’s assessment.

Further, NASA faces the risk of more cost and schedule growth because of “new, large, complex projects that will enter the portfolio and expensive projects remaining the portfolio longer than expected.” Europa Clipper, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and Europa Lander are cited as examples of those future large, complex projects. GAO did give NASA credit for putting processes in place to control the costs of Europa Clipper and WFIRST.

GAO identified nine existing projects as the biggest contributors to the poor cost and schedule performance: SLS, Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) cited in the 2017 report, Mars 2020, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), ICESat-2, NISAR, ICON, and GRACE-FO (GRACE-Follow On).

Orion has cost already cost the taxpayer about $15 billion, all of which will only buy the taxpayer three capsules (two unmanned test flights and a single manned flight). And yet they don’t have enough money yet, and NASA can’t provide a total cost estimate? To me, this appears to be outright theft. Building three capsules simply shouldn’t cost that much. (Note: the report claims Orion has cost about $6.6 billion. My number above comes from actual appropriations by Congress specifically for Orion. I think my number is a far more accurate reflection of the project’s true cost.)

Though the report expresses concerns about schedule delays in the commercial crew program, it is with the NASA-run projects that the report finds the worst cost overruns and delays. All of the usual suspects above come in for criticism: Webb, WFIRST, SLS (and its associated ground facilities), Orion, LOP-G.

I will make a prediction: All these NASA projects will be cited for further cost overruns and further delays in next year’s GAO report. By that time, we shall have also seen the first test flights of the commercial crew capsules by Boeing and SpaceX.

GAO: Cost and scheduling problems with many big NASA projects

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.

GAO warns of more cost overruns for SLS/Orion

The Government Accountability Office today issued two reports, both of which said that the SLS and Orion programs are faced with more cost overruns and schedule delays.

The GAO found that cost overruns for Orion could be as high as $707 million and that work is “not being accomplished as scheduled.” It also found challenges with the capsule’s software and heat shield, and said that the space capsule’s cost and schedule “estimates are not reliable.”

Other than that, everything is peachy keen! These reports, (the Orion report is found here [pdf] and the SLS report here [pdf], especially the Orion one, also suggest that the first manned Orion mission, now scheduled for 2021, stands a good chance of being delayed again, possibly for two more years.

This just confirms what I have written in my soon-to-be published policy paper, Exploring Space in the 21st Century. In fact, I need to add these GAO reports to my sources!

Government overpayments going up by billions

Government marches on! A GAO report has found that since 2003 the federal government has wasted almost a trillion dollars in improper overpayments, with the numbers increasing by 20% in 2014.

The GAO said three programs were most at fault: Medicare, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). These three government programs were responsible for a full three-quarters of the nearly $19 billion in erroneous payments the federal government made in fiscal 2014, the GAO said. “Improper payments remain a significant and pervasive government-wide issue,” the congressional watchdog unit warned.

The Earned Income Tax Credit program was the worst offender. The Internal Revenue Service estimated that the program erroneously handed out $17.7 billion worth of “improper” payments. That amounts to a whopping 27.2 percent of the total $65.2 billion in EITC refund checks that the IRS sent out in fiscal 2014. And that means the federal government is now fast approaching the day when one out of every three earned income tax credits is erroneous.

Medicare was nearly as bad. The program, which covers about 54 million elderly and disabled beneficiaries, incorrectly doled out $59.9 billion in fiscal 2014, which is about a tenth of its $603 billion budget. So, one out of every $10 that Medicare spent last year was erroneous, the GAO found. Medicaid made $17.5 billion in mistaken payments out of its $304 billion budget, for a nearly 6 percent error rate.

It is obvious that the solution to this government problem is to give the government more power and money. How else can they reduce this waste but by spending more money!

The GAO discovers another out-of-control NASA project

Government marches on! A new GAO report has found that NASA’s effort to upgrade the ground-based portion of its satellite communications system, used by both military satellites and manned spacecraft, is more than 30 percent over budget, with its completion now delayed two years to 2019.

Worse, the GAO found that this problem program was actually one of three that have had budget problems. And that doesn’t include the disastrously overbudget James Webb Space Telescope.

In its latest assessment of NASA’s biggest programs, the U.S. Government Accountability Office identified the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) as one of three — not counting the notoriously overbudget James Webb Space Telescope — that account for most of the projected cumulative cost growth this year. The others are the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, which launched March 12, and the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, mission, the congressional watchdog agency said.

The last two projects are part of the climate focus that Obama imposed on NASA.

GAO denied access to Webb telescope workers by Northrop Grumman

In a report as well as at House hearings today the GAO reported that Northrop Grumman has denied them one-on-one access to workers building the James Webb Space Telescope.

The interviews, part of a running series of GAO audits of the NASA flagship observatory, which is billions of dollars overbudget and years behind schedule, were intended to identify potential future trouble spots, according to a GAO official. But Northrop Grumman Aerospace, which along with NASA says the $9 billion project is back on track, cited concerns that the employees, 30 in all, would be intimidated by the process.

To give Northrop Grumman the benefit of the doubt, these interviews were a somewhat unusual request. Then again, if all was well why would they resist? Note too that the quote above says the cost of the telescope project is now $9 billion. That’s a billion increase since the last time I heard NASA discuss Webb. If the project was “back on track: as the agency and Northrop Grumman claim, than why has the budget suddenly increased by another billion?

SLS needs more money!

Surprise, surprise! A GAO report finds that SLS is over budget and that NASA will need an additional $400 million to complete its first orbital launch in 2017.

NASA isn’t meeting its own requirements for matching cost and schedule resources with the congressional requirement to launch the first SLS in December 2017. NASA usually uses a calculation it calls the “joint cost and schedule confidence level” to decide the odds a program will come in on time and on budget. “NASA policy usually requires a 70 percent confidence level for a program to proceed with final design and fabrication,” the GAO report says, and the SLS is not at that level. The report adds that government programs that can’t match requirements to resources “are at increased risk of cost and schedule growth.”

In other words, the GAO says SLS is at risk of costing more than the current estimate of $12 billion to reach the first launch or taking longer to get there. Similar cost and schedule problems – although of a larger magnitude – led President Obama to cancel SLS’s predecessor rocket system called Constellation shortly after taking office. [emphasis mine]

I want to underline the current $12 billion estimate for the program’s cost to achieve one unmanned launch. That is four times what it is costing NASA to get SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to build their three spaceships, all scheduled for first manned launch before 2017. SLS not only can’t get off the ground before 2017, it can’t even get built for $12 billion.

If this isn’t the definition of a wasteful, boondoggle designed merely as pork, I don’t know what is. And what I do know is that there is no way SLS is going to ever get the United States back into space. It should be shut down, now.

A GAO report says that NASA has been hiding the true and very expensive cost of the SLS/Orion projects by specifically excluding the cost of any actual missions that go anywhere.

It is nothing but pork: A GAO report says that NASA has been hiding the true and very expensive cost of the SLS/Orion projects by specifically excluding the cost of any actual missions that go anywhere.

NASA so far has put only two SLS missions on the manifest: a late-2017 test launch of an unmanned Orion into lunar space followed by a repeat of the mission in 2021 with crew onboard. NASA officials told GAO auditors it expects to have spent at least $22 billion on SLS and Orion through 2021, an estimate that does not include the cost of building the SLS launcher for the second mission. … Moreover, NASA provided no cost estimate for the more powerful SLS rocket NASA would need to mount a crewed Mars expedition the Obama administration envisions happening in the 2030s. According to NASA’s early plans, such a mission would entail multiple SLS-Orion launches.

The cost estimates NASA has offered so far “provide no information about the longer-term, life cycle costs of developing, manufacturing, and operating the launch vehicle, crew capsule, and ground systems” the agency has identified as crucial to the eventual Mars mission, the GAO wrote in its report.

In other words, they are going to spend $22 billion to launch the thing once. Meanwhile, NASA’s commercial manned space effort is producing three different spacecraft for about $3 billion total. If anyone in Congress had any brains, picking between these two programs would be easy, a no-brainer. Sadly, they have no brains, and really aren’t making their budgetary decisions with the needs of the nation in mind.

According to a GAO report, the sequester cuts that were going to destroy civilization as we know it resulted in exactly one layoff across the entire federal government.

According to a GAO report, the sequester cuts that were going to destroy civilization as we know it resulted in exactly one layoff across the entire federal government.

That is not a typo. Only one person total was laid off to meet the mandated cuts imposed by sequestration. Most agencies froze hiring or imposed furloughs, though even the number of furloughs was less than predicted.

Remember this fact the next time a politician screams dire warnings about any cuts in the federal budget.

A new GAO report says that Obamacare will increase the federal government’s long term debt by $6.2 trillion.

Who woulda thunk it? A new GAO report says that Obamacare will increase the federal government’s long term debt by $6.2 trillion.

The worse part of this is that these government predictions of debt are always wrong, but in the wrong direction. If this is the prediction, the actual increase in debt caused by Obamacare is likely to be far higher.

Note also that this is no surprise to the Republicans who opposed this bill. It also proves just how much Obama was either incompetent or simply lying when he said this:

“I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future,” Obama told a joint-session of Congress in September 2009. “I will not sign it if it adds one dime to the deficit, now or in the future, period.”

The GAO is concerned about the future budget and schedule of the James Webb Space Telescope.

O goody: The GAO is concerned about the future budget and schedule of the James Webb Space Telescope.

This is very bad news if true for NASA’s astronomy program. Webb was originally budgeted at $1 billion and scheduled to launch in 2011. Its budget is now $8.8 billion and its launch is now set for October 2018. And until it launches there is little money to build any other space telescope.