NASA Acquisition Management
NASA plans to invest billions of dollars in the coming years to explore space, and conduct aeronautics research, among other things. We designated NASA’s acquisition management as high-risk in 1990 in view of NASA’s history of persistent cost growth and schedule delays in the majority of its major projects. We have identified management weaknesses that have exacerbated the inherent technical and engineering risks faced by NASA’s largest projects.
In more recent years, we found that NASA had taken steps to improve its management of its major projects—those projects and programs with an estimated life-cycle cost over $250 million. However, we reported in May 2018 that the cost and schedule performance of NASA’s portfolio of major projects deteriorated. One of NASA’s largest projects, the James Webb Space Telescope, has experienced delays of 81 months and cost growth of 95 percent since 2009.
In 2018, we found that additional cost and schedule growth is likely for the portfolio. Many major projects, including some of the most expensive ones, are in the phase of their life cycles when cost and schedule growth is most likely. Further, NASA faces significant challenges largely driven by the need to improve the completeness and reliability of its cost and schedule estimates, update cost and schedule estimates as new risks emerge, and ensure that programmatic decisions are not increasing risks to projects.
In our May 2018 assessment of major projects, we were unable to determine the cost performance for NASA’s portfolio of major projects for the first time because NASA lacked a current cost estimate for its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion)—one of the largest projects in the portfolio. In addition, the approved cost estimate for the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment project underestimated the expected life-cycle cost because it did not include the full scope of the project’s effort.
Further, we reported in July 2018 that the Commercial Crew Program did not provide Congress with the results of its schedule analysis showing a risk of schedule delays beyond what each of its two contractors’ had previously provided. As a result, Congress does not have complete information for decision-making regarding U.S. access to the International Space Station.
- NASA has not taken action on several recommendations we made related to understanding the long-term costs of its human exploration programs. For example, two human spaceflight programs—Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) and Space Launch System (SLS)—do not have a cost and schedule baseline that covers activities beyond the first planned flight. In addition, the third program—Orion—does not have a baseline beyond the second planned flight. As a result, NASA is now committing itself to spend billions of dollars for missions that do not have a cost and schedule baseline against which to assess progress.
NASA leadership has approved programmatic decisions that compounded technical challenges. These decisions included establishing insufficient cost and schedule reserves, operating under aggressive schedules, and not following best practices for establishing reliable cost and schedule baselines for some of its most expensive major projects, including Orion, SLS, and the James Webb Space Telescope. As a result, these programs have been at risk of cost growth and schedule delays since NASA approved their baselines.
Further, the Mars 2020 project experienced cost growth stemming from technical challenges on a technology demonstration instrument designed to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. NASA approved the project to proceed through its preliminary design review without maturing a critical technology for this instrument. In our prior work on best practices for systems entering product development, we have found that such decisions can increase risk for these systems.
- NASA has not always followed best practices in areas such as estimating costs and schedules and earned value management, and projects are reluctant to update their cost and schedule estimates as new risks emerge. For example, NASA partially agreed with our July 2016 recommendation that the Orion program should update its joint cost and schedule confidence analysis—a point-in-time estimate that, among other things, includes all cost and schedule elements, and incorporates and quantifies known risks that support each program’s cost and schedule baseline. In January 2018, however, NASA officials stated that they have no plans to update this analysis. An updated analysis would be beneficial given numerous conditions and risks have changed since the analysis was completed, including delays to its first planned flight.
- In our May 2018 assessment of major projects, we found that several NASA major projects experienced workforce challenges, including not having enough staff or staff with the right skills. NASA has also identified capability gaps in areas such as scheduling, earned value management, and cost estimating, and has efforts underway to try to improve capacity in these areas.
Since we initially designated this area as high-risk, we have made numerous recommendations. As of December 2018, 15 recommendations related to this high-risk area remain open. Of the 9 recommendations we have made since the last high-risk update in February 2017, 6 remain open.
NASA should take action in the following areas to reduce acquisition risk to its portfolio of major projects and demonstrate progress.
- Increase transparency of project costs and decline to approve cost and schedule baselines or programmatic decisions that increase risk to projects. This includes not approving project cost and schedule baselines that do not meet best practices and that do not have adequate cost and schedule reserves.
- Implement recommendations related to the long-term costs of its human exploration programs. This will be especially important for NASA to determine the affordability of its portfolio, especially now that it plans to begin developing other large, complex projects.
- Build capacity by ensuring that NASA’s workforce has the right skills to develop project cost and schedule estimates that meet best practices.
- Ensure that NASA updates project cost and schedule estimates as risks change.
- Implement the new corrective action plan and track progress against it. Continue to develop and refine outcome metrics for the human spaceflight portfolio analysis and planning effort to provide better metrics to assess improvements in program outcomes.
- In conjunction with its new corrective action plan, institute a program for monitoring and independently validating the effectiveness and sustainability of corrective measures.
Congressional Actions Needed
In October 2017, we raised a matter for Congressional consideration that Congress should consider requiring the NASA Administrator to direct the Exploration Systems Development organization within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate to establish separate cost and schedule baselines for work required to support Space Launch System and Exploration Ground Systems for the second combined exploration mission and establish separate cost and schedule baselines for each additional capability that encompass all life-cycle costs, to include operations and sustainment. We made this a matter for Congressional consideration because NASA has not acted on our May 2014 recommendation to establish baselines for these programs or for capabilities beyond NASA’s first test flight, and does not have plans to do either.
GAO-18-476: Published: Jul 11, 2018. Publicly Released: Jul 11, 2018.
NASA contracted with two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to develop vehicles to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. Neither is expected to be ready until 2019. Before any missions happen, NASA will have to certify that both contractors' vehicles are safe for human spaceflight. One way that NASA will assess safety is the loss of crew metric, which captures the probability of a c...
GAO-18-576T: Published: Jun 14, 2018. Publicly Released: Jun 14, 2018.
This testimony highlights our 10th annual Quick Look report on the status of NASA's major projects. Many of them experienced significant cost and schedule growth in the past year. NASA is likely to keep seeing cost and schedule growth because complex new projects are starting up, and other expensive projects are taking longer to launch than expected. The full extent of cost growth was unknown be...
GAO-18-280SP: Published: May 1, 2018. Publicly Released: May 1, 2018.
In our 10th annual Quick Look at the status of NASA's major projects, we found that many of these projects experienced significant cost and schedule growth over the past year. The average launch delay was 12 months—the most we've ever reported. However, the extent of cost growth for the portfolio of projects is unknown because NASA doesn't have a current cost estimate for the Orion crew vehicle...
GAO-18-273: Published: Feb 28, 2018. Publicly Released: Feb 28, 2018.
The James Webb Space Telescope, the planned successor to the Hubble Telescope, is one of NASA’s most complex and expensive projects. NASA recently announced that JWST's launch would be delayed several months, from October 2018 to no later than June 2019, because components of the telescope are taking longer to integrate than planned. Based on the amount of work NASA has to complete before JWST...
GAO-18-317T: Published: Jan 17, 2018. Publicly Released: Jan 17, 2018.
Boeing and SpaceX, the companies NASA contracted with to develop and produce vehicles to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, have set aggressive schedules and experienced continually shifting dates. In this testimony, we noted that while both contractors have made progress developing their vehicles, both have also experienced delays. With safety and programmatic risks to addr...
GAO-18-277T: Published: Dec 6, 2017. Publicly Released: Dec 6, 2017.
In this testimony, we note that NASA's 3 major telescope projects are all making progress in development, but also face some challenges. For example, the James Webb Space Telescope has made progress in developing and testing its hardware and instruments, and addressing technical problems. However, the project has already been delayed by up to 60 months. Additional delays are likely given the risk...
GAO-18-28: Published: Oct 19, 2017. Publicly Released: Oct 19, 2017.
NASA is developing 3 programs to put astronauts into space—the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System, and Exploration Ground Systems. All 3 programs must work together. We found challenges in NASA's approach to integrating these programs. For example, the technical authorities for engineering and safety also have program roles that include managing resources. When technical authorities must a...
GAO-17-303SP: Published: May 16, 2017. Publicly Released: May 16, 2017.
In our annual Quick Look at the status of NASA's major projects, we found that most of the agency's projects are being executed within their cost and schedule estimates. However, a third of these projects, including two of the most expensive ones (the Orion crew vehicle and Space Launch System), are at a stage when problems are most likely to occur. NASA is also improving project management tools...
GAO-17-414: Published: Apr 27, 2017. Publicly Released: Apr 27, 2017.
NASA is working towards a November 2018 launch date for the first test flight of its three related human space exploration programs: the Orion crew vehicle, the Space Launch System, and the Exploration Ground Systems. However, we found that all three programs face challenges and have little time or money set aside to address potential issues—likely delaying the launch date. We recommended that...