Key Issues > NASA Acquisitions - High Risk Issue
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NASA Acquisitions - High Risk Issue

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to invest billions of dollars in the coming years to explore space, understand Earth’s environment, and conduct aeronautics research. NASA faces numerous challenges to managing these programs.

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This key issue page is related to an area on GAO’s 2017 High Risk Update and will be updated shortly. In the meantime, visit the related High Risk area for the newest information.

GAO's work has shown that NASA projects, while producing ground-breaking research and advancing our understanding of the universe, tend to cost more and take longer to develop than planned, and are often approved without evidence of a sound business case. In addition, the magnitude of these cost increases and schedule delays have, and will continue to have, a major effect on NASA’s ability to implement or begin new science missions for years to come. GAO designated NASA’s acquisition management as high risk in 1990 in view of NASA’s history of persistent cost growth and schedule slippage in the majority of its major projects.

The NASA Quicklook

Every year, GAO assesses large-scale NASA projects that have an estimated life-cycle cost of over $250 million in an annual report known as the “NASA Quicklook.” Over the past 7 years, this annual report has covered 41 distinct projects. 

Observations from the NASA Quicklook

Over time, NASA has reduced cost and schedule growth across its portfolio of major projects as it has increased focus on maturing technology earlier in the project cycle.

  • In 2015 GAO reported that the portfolio of projects in implementation–excluding the James Webb Space Telescope–had an average development cost growth of 2.4 percent and an average launch delay of 3 months. However, five projects, including the Space Launch System (SLS)—the largest program in NASA's portfolio—only recently established cost and schedule baselines, and as expected, has not yet experienced any cost growth in 2015, which masks growth of several smaller projects in the portfolio. See figure 1.

Figure 1: Total Number and Development Cost Growth of Selected Major Projects with Established Cost Baselines

Total Number and Development Cost Growth of Selected Major Projects with Established Cost Baselines

  • Over the past 3 years, major projects in NASA’s portfolio have continued to improve in meeting the best practice standard for technology maturity. GAO found that, 10 of the 13 projects that have held a preliminary design review, or 77 percent, have met the best practices standard for technology maturity. This is a significant improvement over prior years and reflects a continued increased focus by NASA on maturing technologies prior to making significant commitments.

Other High-Priority Programs

In addition to the NASA Quicklook, GAO also regularly conducts reviews of other high-priority programs and projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Launch System, and the Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle. As shown in the figure 2 below, cost overruns in projects like these can dramatically affect the overall portfolio of major projects.

Figure 2: Fiscal Year 2015 NASA Budget Request for Five Costliest Projects and All Other Major Projects, 2015 through 2019

Figure 2: Fiscal Year 2015 NASA Budget Request for Five Costliest Projects and All Other Major Projects, 2015 through 2019

Recent GAO reports have identified challenges that lie ahead for these high-priority projects, such as:

  • technical challenges with the James Webb Space Telescope elements and major subsystems have diminished the project's overall schedule reserve and increased risk, with just under 4 years until it’s planned launch in October 2018.
  • cost estimates for programs that could enable human deep space exploration that only reflect the funding necessary to achieve initial capabilities. These estimates will not provide the means to measure progress and assess the long term affordability of the programs; and
  • the human deep space exploration programs also face a number of issues. These closely linked programs—the Space Launch System, the Orion capsule, and the supporting ground systems—could approach $23 billion over the next decade to demonstrate initial capabilities. The Space Launch System is pursuing an aggressive development schedule, which risks exhausting limited resources and the Orion program faces a number of technical risks that must be addressed as they represent risks to crew safety.
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Key Issues Facing NASAWednesday, February 3, 2010
Quick Look at NASA AcquisitionsTuesday, March 24, 2015
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    • Cristina Chaplain
    • Director, Contracting and National Security Acquisitions
    • 202-512-4841