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 on acquisition programs and projects to explore the solar system, understand Earth’s environment, conduct aeronautics research, and extend human presence beyond low Earth orbit, among other things. NASA faces numerous challenges to managing these programs and projects.

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Many of NASA's major projects have cost more or taken longer to develop than planned. As stated in GAO’s 2017 High Risk Update, NASA has made progress since 2012 in a number of key acquisition management areas, but it faces significant challenges in some of its major projects. These challenges are largely driven by the need to improve the completeness and reliability of cost and schedule estimating, estimating risks associated with the development of major systems, and managing to aggressive schedules. GAO 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. Because NASA expects to begin other large, complex projects in the next few years, such as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, it is essential that the agency effectively manage its acquisition risk.

NASA's cost and schedule performance for its portfolio of major projects has deteriorated after several years of following generally positive trends in the following areas:

  • limiting cost and schedule growth
  • maturing technologies
  • stabilizing designs

However, in 2018, the full extent of cost growth was unknown because NASA did not have a current life-cycle cost estimate for one of the largest projects in the portfolio—the Orion crew capsule. In addition, the average launch delay for the portfolio was 12 months, the longest reported average delay in 10 years of assessing major NASA projects (see figure).

Development Cost Growth and Average Launch Delay for Major NASA Projects from 2009 to 2018

Development Cost Growth  and Average Launch Delay for Major NASA Projects from 2009 to 2018

Of the 17 major projects in development in 2018, 9 experienced cost or schedule growth. Reasons for this cost or schedule growth included projects encountering technical issues that were compounded by risky program management decisions; delays in the integration and test phases; and delays due to factors largely outside the projects’ control such as issues related to launch vehicles.

NASA will continue to face increased risk of cost and schedule growth in future years. New, large and complex projects will enter the portfolio and expensive projects are taking longer to launch than expected. Several major projects that experienced schedule delays or cost increases will face further challenges completing integration and test—the phase of development that often reveals unforeseen challenges that can lead to cost and schedule growth—that could result in additional cost and schedule growth. For example:

  • The James Webb Space Telescope is one of NASA’s most complex and expensive projects and has had a history of cost growth and schedule delays. In 2018, NASA announced further delays and cost growth for the project due to components of the telescope taking longer to integrate than planned, among other things. As a result, the project requires additional funding and will remain in NASA's portfolio of major projects longer than planned as the project works to complete integration and test activities.

  • NASA delayed 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—by 13-19 months. The delay was the result of the combined effects of ongoing technical challenges in conjunction with limited cost and schedule reserves, among other things. NASA has established a new schedule for this mission, but the programs continue to face cost, schedule, and technical risks as they move through the integration and test phase to prepare for the first test flight.

  • The two companies that NASA contracted with to develop and produce vehicles to transport astronauts to the International Space Station under the Commercial Crew Program have made progress developing their vehicles, but both companies have also experienced delays. With safety and programmatic risks to address, further delays are likely. This could ultimately jeopardize the United States' uninterrupted access to the space station and may lessen NASA’s return on investment with the contractors.

Commercial Crew Program

Source: NASA. GAO-18-280SP

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NASA Human Space ExplorationThursday, October 19, 2017
NASA Commercial Crew ProgramThursday, February 16, 2017
NASA Space Exploration ProjectsWednesday, July 27, 2016
  • portrait of Cristina Chaplain
    • Cristina Chaplain
    • Director, Contracting and National Security Acquisitions
    • chaplainc@gao.gov
    • 202-512-4841