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NASA: Assessments of Major Projects

GAO-18-280SP Published: May 01, 2018. Publicly Released: May 01, 2018.
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Fast Facts

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, one of its most expensive projects.

NASA is likely to keep seeing cost and schedule growth in the future. Complex new projects are starting up, and other expensive projects are taking longer to launch than expected.

NASA’s Major Project Portfolio Cost and Schedule Performance Deteriorated in 2018

Graphic showing that cost and schedule growth of NASA's major projects has worsened this year with Orion costs unknown

Graphic showing that cost and schedule growth of NASA's major projects has worsened this year with Orion costs unknown

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What GAO Found

The cost and schedule performance of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) portfolio of major projects has deteriorated, but the extent of cost performance deterioration is unknown. NASA expects cost growth for the Orion crew capsule—one of the largest projects in the portfolio—but does not have a current cost estimate. In addition, the average launch delay for the portfolio was 12 months, the highest delay GAO has reported in its 10 years of assessing major NASA projects (see figure below).

NASA's Major Project Portfolio Cost and Schedule Performance Deteriorated in 2018

NASA's Major Project Portfolio Cost and Schedule Performance Deteriorated in 2018

The deterioration in portfolio performance was the result of 9 of the 17 projects in development experiencing cost or schedule growth.

  • Four projects encountered technical issues that were compounded by risky program management decisions. For example, the Space Launch System and Exploration Ground Systems programs are large-scale, technically complex human spaceflight programs, and NASA managed them to aggressive schedules and with insufficient levels of cost and schedule reserves. This made it more difficult for the programs to operate within their committed baseline cost and schedule estimates.
  • Two projects ran into technical challenges that resulted in delays in the integration and test phase. For example, in December 2017, GAO found that the James Webb Space Telescope project encountered delays primarily due to the integration of the various spacecraft elements taking longer than expected, as well as resolving technical issues during testing. GAO has previously found that integration and testing is when projects are most at risk of incurring cost and schedule growth.
  • Three projects experienced cost growth or schedule delays due to factors outside of the projects' control, such as delays related to their launch vehicles.

NASA continues to face increased risk of cost and schedule growth in future years due to new, large and complex projects that will enter the portfolio and expensive projects remaining in the portfolio longer than expected.

Why GAO Did This Study

This report provides GAO's annual snapshot for 2018 of how well NASA is planning and executing its major acquisition projects. In May 2017, GAO found that projects were continuing a generally positive trend of limiting cost and schedule growth, maturing technologies, and stabilizing designs. But, at the same time, GAO noted that many of these projects, including some of the most expensive ones, were approaching the phase in their life cycles when cost and schedule growth is most likely.

The explanatory statement of the House Committee on Appropriations accompanying the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 included a provision for GAO to prepare status reports on selected large-scale NASA programs, projects, and activities. This is GAO's 10th annual assessment. This report describes the cost and schedule performance of NASA's portfolio of major projects, among other issues. This report also includes assessments of NASA's 26 major projects, each with a life-cycle cost of over $250 million. To conduct its review, GAO analyzed cost, schedule, technology maturity, design stability, and other data; reviewed monthly project status reports; and interviewed NASA officials.


In prior reports, GAO has made related recommendations that NASA generally agreed with, but has not yet fully addressed. GAO continues to believe they should be fully addressed. NASA generally agreed with GAO's findings.

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Cost and scheduleCost and schedule performanceCost assessmentsCost estimatesCritical technologiesLife cycle costsPerformance measurementProject managementSchedule slippagesTechnical challengesCost growth