NASA moves too slow on projects, GAO says

Lagging pace hinders innovation and acquisition

The slow pace of innovation and acquisition at NASA is unsustainable and hinders the agency's mission, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued earlier this week.

“NASA projects drive critical innovation in and understanding of space, but our work has shown that most cost more and take longer to develop than planned. Today’s fiscal environment highlights why that pattern is unsustainable, now more than ever,” the GAO report said.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 specifies that the space agency cannot create any new projects or terminate existing projects or activities that are currently outlined in the appropriations for 2010. A GAO audit in July determined that NASA conformed to these requirements.

However, that doesn't mitigate the tendency for projects to run over budget and behind schedule.

“Once NASA begins to implement the new direction outlined in the Authorization Act, it will need to adopt new ways of doing business—particularly with respect to matching requirements to resources," GAO auditors wrote. NASA will have to rethink the way it manages costs, increase transparency into the most critical phases of development, and strengthen accountability, the report states.

One frequent problem GAO identified is that NASA often has difficulty creating new technologies or retrofitting older technologies into current projects. That alone runs up project costs after the baseline appropriations, and it happens because there are "considerable unknowns” about “requirements, technologies, costs or other resources," the report states

In an earlier study, GAO considered 10 NASA projects from the past three years and found that they averaged $121 million over the original budget and 15 months longer than the original estimated timeframe.

“The problems described can and have had a crippling effect on missions,” said Cristina Chaplain, Director of Acquisitions and Sourcing Management at GAO. “For instance, it is unknown how NASA will pay for the most recent unanticipated cost overrun for the James Webb Telescope. The overrun is estimated to be $1.5 billion but may be more. As much as $200 million may be needed to pay for that next year. $200 million is almost the cost of a new major project for NASA.”

According to Chaplain, NASA has made many attempts since the 1990s to replace the space shuttle program and the reason that there is a gap in U.S. manned space flight is because of NASA’s problems with acquisitions and project management.

“All were stopped due to issues like cost overruns, schedule delays, the level of technology uncertainty after large investments had been made, problems in dealing with contractors, problems related to poor cost estimates and funding profiles, etc. And now we face a gap in US human space flight capability because these prior efforts were not successful,” Chaplain said.

The GAO made several recommendations in what basically amounts to a “work smarter, not harder” approach to programs at NASA:

  • Use quantitative data and demonstrable knowledge to make go/no-go decisions, covering critical facets of the project such as cost, schedule, technology readiness, design readiness, production readiness, and relationships with suppliers.
  • Establish consistent metrics to measure design readiness and ensure they are met before development proceeds.
  • Empower project managers to make decisions about the direction of the project and to resolve problems and implement solutions and hold them accountable for their choices.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

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