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Home News Archive Why Can’t NASA Manage its Programs?

Why Can’t NASA Manage its Programs?

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been a topic of interest since President Obama took office more than a year ago and almost immediately ordered an independent review of NASA’s manned space program.  That review, carried out by the Augustine Commission, had nothing but bad news for the Administration, reporting “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory.”

More recently—and perhaps in response to the Augustine Commission’s pessimistic assessment—the Obama Administration announced a budgetary shift for NASA, giving the agency more funds for R&D, while taking away funds from the planned return to the moon—“killing the Constellation program” in the words of this article by the Washington Post.  The article explains—

The old NASA strategy set a destination first, and developed technology -- rockets and a crew capsule -- to get there. The new strategy calls for pouring billions into space technologies without defining the destination. The idea is to create technological flexibility so that astronauts could potentially visit a variety of locations in the inner solar system, including the moon, near-Earth asteroids and possibly Mars or the moons of Mars. The Flexible Path strategy was favored by the advisory panel appointed last year by President Obama to review NASA's options.

This article at SpaceNews.com is rather more optimistic; it quotes a NASA executive as saying, “This is a great budget.  It’s a major increase to the science budget.  It’s an especially major increase to the Earth science budget.”

While NASA wrestled with its future vision and mapping a path to manned space missions, back on Earth the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was busy criticizing its unmanned satellite missions, telling Congress that “NASA frequently exceeded its own acquisition cost and schedule estimates, even when those estimates were relatively new. In fact, 9 out of 10 projects that have been in implementation for several years significantly exceeded their cost or schedule baseline estimates—all in the last 3 years.”

In a report released on February 1, 2010, GAO assessed 19 “large-scale” unmanned NASA projects, of which 15 had entered the “implementation” phase.  Of those 15, GAO concluded that nine of them “experienced significant cost and/or schedule growth from their project baselines.”  (Four projects were considered to be in the “formulation” phase, and NASA did not provide GAO with formal cost and schedule information on them.)  GAO reported—

Based on our analysis, development costs for projects in our review increased by an average of over 13 percent from their baseline cost estimates—including one project that increased by over 68 percent—and an average delay of almost 11 months to their launch dates. These averages were significantly higher when the four projects that just entered implementation are excluded.  Specifically, there are 10 projects of analytical interest because (1) they are in the implementation phase, and (2) their baselines are old enough to begin to track variances. Most of these 10 projects have experienced significant cost and/or schedule growth, often both. These projects had an average development cost growth of 18.7 percent—or almost $121.1 million—and schedule growth of over 15 months, and a total increase in development cost of over $1.2 billion. Over half of this total increase in development cost—or $706.6 million—occurred in the last year. These cost growth and schedule delays have all occurred within the last 3 years, and a number of these projects had experienced considerable cost growth before baselines were established in response to the 2005 statutory reporting requirement.

See GAO’s entire report here.  The GAO report also noted that roughly $1 billion in ARRA funds was given to NASA, much of which was used to offset some of the cost growth it reported.

In its report, GAO reviewed six factors that it believed contributed to cost and schedule growth.  Those six factors were:

  • Technology maturity (including maturity of critical technology as well as maturity of heritage technology)
  • Design stability
  • Contractor performance
  • Development partner performance
  • Funding issues
  • Launch manifest issues

The report discussed each of the above factors as they apply to NASA’s projects.  More interestingly, the report devotes two pages of detail to each individual project.  Following are some “highlights” from the detailed project reports.

  • Aquarius Project – Only 16 percent of engineering drawings released at Critical Design Review (CDR) milestone.  No engineering test models because of funding constraints.  Ten month schedule slip and $10.7 million cost growth.
  • Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) – “The Constellation program’s poorly phased funding plan has diminished the Ares I project’s ability to deal with technical challenges.”
  • Glory Project – Only 69 percent of drawing released at CDR.  14 percent cost increase and 10 month schedule slip since rebaselining in FY 2009.  Currently, recent launch failure of Taurus XL rocket threatening current scheduled launch date.
  • James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – “The JWST project was re-planned in fiscal year 2006 after a $1 billion cost increase and a 2-year schedule delay on the project. In fiscal year 2009, the project established its baseline with a life cycle cost of $4.96 billion and a June 2014 launch date. This represents about a $500 million increase over NASA’s 2006 replan figures and has resulted in another 1-year delay of the launch readiness date.
  • Kepler – “Since being baselined in fiscal year 2007, Kepler’s development costs have increased by about 25 percent and its schedule has increased by 9 months. Project officials attribute the cost and schedule growth to many things, including a $35 million budget reduction in fiscal year 2005. This funding instability contributed to an overall 20-month delay in the project’s schedule and about $169 million in cost growth.”
  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – “MSL’s cost has grown over $660 million because of technological and engineering problems. This includes more than a 68 percent increase in development costs. The project is using a 25-month schedule delay to work on overcoming technical challenges with the actuators and avionics that were the primary drivers for the slip.”
  • Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO – “SDO’s design was not stable at the critical design review (CDR). Following this review, the project experienced nearly a 1,200 percent overall increase in the number of releasable drawings expected. Project officials said only drawings for in-house structures, such as propulsion systems, electronics, instrument ports, the high-gain antenna system, and the spacecraft, were considered at CDR. Drawings for the instruments were not included and flight drawings were only in draft form at CDR. The project estimated it released less than 63 percent of engineering drawings at each of their instrument-level CDRs.”

From one point of view, the GAO report is a litany of project management failures.  But from another point of view, the report tells various stories of individual project teams doing the best they could in difficult circumstances, trying to create state-of-the-art scientific instruments and manage complex systems, while being held to unrealistic budgets and almost impossible launch schedules.

Very few people care about the difficulties and the challenges of the NASA missions; they prefer to criticize the easy targets of cost growth and schedule slip.  Even though we here at Apogee Consulting, Inc. firmly maintain that projects can be managed to successful cost, schedule, quality and performance objectives, we also understand the difficulties faced by these project teams.  We are reminded of this saying by Theodore Roosevelt, spoken before the Sorbonne in 1910—

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.



Effective January 1, 2019, Nick Sanders has been named as Editor of two reference books published by LexisNexis. The first book is Matthew Bender’s Accounting for Government Contracts: The Federal Acquisition Regulation. The second book is Matthew Bender’s Accounting for Government Contracts: The Cost Accounting Standards. Nick replaces Darrell Oyer, who has edited those books for many years.