What We Found
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration needs to continue implementing its Corrective Action Plan with a focus on improving visibility into human spaceflight long-term costs and building capacity to reduce acquisition risk.
Since our 2019 High-Risk Report, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has taken actions to meet two criteria—leadership commitment and monitoring—in addition to already meeting the criterion for an action plan. The other two criteria—capacity and demonstrated progress—remain partially met.
Leadership commitment: met. NASA has demonstrated leadership commitment by taking steps to improve transparency and monitoring of major project cost and schedules. For example:
- NASA established new requirements for projects higher than $1 billion to conduct a joint cost and schedule confidence level (JCL) assessment at additional reviews throughout a project’s life cycle. These requirements will help ensure that NASA’s most expensive projects update their cost and schedule estimates as risks change.
- Since December 2018, the agency has increased the use of earned value management data. These data measure the value of work accomplished in a given period and compare it with the planned value of work scheduled for that period and the actual cost of work accomplished. In June 2019, NASA senior leadership began having projects submit data to a central repository and requiring earned value management metrics to be reported at an agency-level performance review. Subsequently, NASA officials said that having leadership discuss the data at these reviews has become a helpful tool for project performance.
- NASA committed to establishing cost and schedule baselines for additional capabilities of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion), and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) that will help to improve visibility into long-term costs of human space exploration programs. This commitment is in response to recommendations related to understanding the long-term costs of NASA’s human exploration programs we made in May and July 2014. In addition, in response to a recommendation in our December 2019 report on NASA’s lunar programs, NASA agreed to prepare a cost estimate for the Artemis III mission—the 2024 lunar landing. NASA needs to complete these efforts in a timely manner or risks rendering them useless. We will follow up on these estimates in future work.
Capacity: partially met. NASA continues to take steps to build capacity to reduce acquisition risk. For example, NASA has made progress embracing tools to support better cost and scheduling practices and, in August 2020, released a new guide with best practices for technology assessments.
In May 2019, we found some subjectivity in the processes NASA uses to identify and assess critical technologies—those that are required for the project to successfully meet customer requirements—which could understate the development risk.
NASA has also identified areas to continue to develop more robust staffing or additional training opportunities. For example:
- The agency’s scheduling workforce continues to be strained. According to Office of the Chief Financial Officer, the skill set required by schedule analysts is in high demand across the government and is a difficult area to recruit and retain talent, especially when competing with the private sector.
- NASA has experienced some challenges completing curriculum development—including for JCL implementation and independent assessments—for its programmatic workforce. This is because it is a duty assigned in addition to regular duties for those working on the effort. NASA initiated these new training courses in response to a NASA-conducted study of its workforce, which found an inadequate number of analysts with proficient skills and limited resources.
NASA’s people and resources will continue to be strained as it works towards an aggressive goal of returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024—with the Artemis III mission—while also supporting its increasing portfolio of other nonlunar major projects.
In December 2019, we found that opportunities exist to strengthen analyses and plans for the lunar landing, which include devoting resources to developing a life-cycle cost estimate for the mission. Further, the complexity of the efforts required for this mission provides additional cost and schedule risk that NASA will have to actively manage to ensure that its portfolio of major projects remains affordable.
Action plan: met. In August 2020, NASA completed an update of its December 2018 Corrective Action Plan. The 2018 plan included nine initiatives to strengthen the agency’s project management efforts and improve transparency of external reporting. As part of the 2020 update, NASA reported completing six of nine initiatives, including an initiative to improve transparency of project cost and schedule reporting by comparing current cost and schedule estimates against original baselines. In addition, the 2020 update added four new initiatives, including one to create a schedule repository to improve access to historical and analogous project schedules for planning purposes. This initiative would also allow for the continuous improvement of schedule management guidance and best practices.
Monitoring: met. NASA has instituted a process for monitoring progress and validating the effectiveness of its corrective action plan. This process includes briefing senior leaders on the progress made on action plan initiatives, establishing a working group to evaluate potential new initiatives, and getting approval from senior leaders on action plan updates.
In addition, NASA has updated its semiannual High-Risk Metrics Report. The update includes revised metrics such as reporting project cost and schedule performance against original baselines, progress made against the corrective action plan initiatives, and other metrics for program technical performance, such as mass and power margins.
Demonstrated progress: partially met. NASA’s progress across its portfolio of major projects has been mixed.
The agency has made several notable recent achievements. Of significance, SpaceX, a NASA commercial partner, successfully completed a crewed demonstration of its transportation system including launch, in-orbit, docking, and landing operations in May 2020. This demonstration was a critical step in achieving certification for regular crewed flights to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It marked the first time that American astronauts traveled to the station from American soil on a commercially built and operated spacecraft.
Additionally, in July 2020, NASA successfully launched its Mars 2020 mission—part of the Mars Exploration program—which seeks to determine if Mars is, was, or can be a habitable planet.
However, setbacks continued for NASA’s largest programs. We reported in our April 2020 assessment of NASA’s portfolio of major projects that cost growth was approximately 31 percent higher than project baselines—the third consecutive year that cost growth has increased after a period of declining costs. The average launch delay decreased to 12 months, compared to 13 months in the previous year.
Additionally, 10 of 18 projects included in our analysis remained within or below cost commitments, and 12 of 18 remained within schedule commitments.
In June 2020, the NASA Administrator approved another delay for the uncrewed test flight of SLS, Orion, and EGS—known as Artemis I—due to its integration and testing schedule, among other factors. As a result of this most recent delay, NASA has postponed the Artemis I mission 36 months past the original November 2018 baseline launch date.
Accompanying these delays is an estimate that the SLS and EGS programs combined will exceed original development cost estimates by more than $3 billion. NASA has successfully completed some key test events to evaluate these programs’ readiness to support the first uncrewed test flight, but complex integration and testing remain.
Additionally, in our December 2019 report on NASA’s lunar programs, we found that the agency has made decisions related to requirements for individual programs but is behind in taking these steps for the lunar mission as a whole.
As a result, NASA risks the discovery of integration challenges and needed changes late in the development process because it established some requirements for individual lunar programs before finalizing requirements for the overall lunar mission. NASA plans to hold reviews to ensure that requirements align across programs, but had not yet defined these reviews or determined when they would occur.
We also found in our December 2019 report that NASA is ill positioned to effectively communicate its decisions to stakeholders and facilitate a better understanding of its plans because it did not fully assess a range of alternatives to its lunar plans.
Finally, in July 2020, NASA revised its launch readiness date for the James Webb Space Telescope project to October 2021, a 7-month delay from its prior estimate established in June 2018. The latest delay was primarily driven by environmental and deployment test schedule risks and the impact of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 pandemic.
Program officials stated that existing cost reserves would be sufficient to support the later launch date within the program’s $9.7 billion cost commitment. The project’s ability to execute its revised schedule and maintain its cost commitment will continue to be challenged through the remainder of its integration and test phase, which includes a series of environmental tests and deployment events.
In April 2020, we found that additional cost and schedule growth is likely for the portfolio of major projects. We found that new and complex projects are entering the portfolio and several of the most expensive major projects are in the integration and test phase—the phase when challenges are most likely to be found and schedules can slip.
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.
Over the past several 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 higher than $250 million. However, NASA has struggled with major project cost and schedule performance.
We reported in April 2020 that the cost growth had deteriorated for the third consecutive year while the average schedule delay decreased from 13 to 12 months.
Since we initially designated this area as high risk, we have made numerous recommendations. As of December 2020, a total of 21 recommendations related to this high-risk area remain open. We made 15 recommendations since the last high-risk update in March 2019, 11 of which remain open.
NASA should take action in the following areas to reduce acquisition risk to its portfolio of major projects and demonstrate progress.
- Establish cost and schedule baselines for additional human spaceflight capabilities in a timely manner to ensure the baselines are a useful programmatic tool and to demonstrate a commitment to improving transparency into long-term human spaceflight costs.
- Implement our recommendations related to its lunar missions, including developing a life-cycle cost estimate for the Artemis III mission, and defining and determining a schedule to ensure requirements are aligned across programs.
- Build capacity by ensuring that NASA’s workforce has the right skills to develop project cost and schedule estimates that meet best practices.
- Demonstrate sustained improvement in cost and schedule performance for new, large, complex programs entering the portfolio.