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Effective cost-control strategies remain elusive, NASA officials say

Jul. 21, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By AMY KLAMPER   |   Comments

The National Research Council (NRC) is recommending steps NASA should take to rein in cost and schedule problems on its Earth and space science missions, but senior agency officials say much of the panel's advice has already been adopted so far without evident success on large development projects including the $5 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

In a report released July 13 during a two-day meeting of the NASA Advisory Council's Science Committee, NRC commended NASA on recent changes in how it estimates spending on space and Earth science programs, but said the agency needs a broad, integrated strategy to contain costs and maintain schedule on these missions. The report, "Cost Growth in NASA Earth and Space Science Missions," also said the agency should wait to lock in program cost estimates until the preliminary design review stage.

Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for science, sees strong merit in those recommendations, but said other suggestions in the report, such as conducting multiple cost reviews and spending more time and money fleshing out projects during the early design stages, were applied to the James Webb Space Telescope without success.

"There must be another factor we're missing," Weiler said July 13 at the meeting. "Is it the number of unknown unknowns? Is it human behavior? Is it profit? Because I'm at a loss. I'm looking for help."

In an interview July 14, Weiler said he had read the report, prepared by an NRC panel chaired by Ronald Sega, a former Air Force undersecretary, and that only time will tell whether its recommendations will make a difference.

"Nobody has given any of us the magic bullet after 50 years of overruns on many projects; nobody yet to my knowledge has come up with the magic bullet that would solve all the problems at once," Weiler said in the interview.

Weiler noted that the report recommends spending more time and money in the early phases of a program to bring the required technologies to a high level of maturity, and committing to a budget for full-scale development only after costs can be reliably estimated.

"We at NASA applaud those words," he said. "You can't take a decadal survey estimate or a Phase A estimate off view-graphs and hold anybody accountable to that because you don't know enough; you haven't eliminated enough of the technological variables. Not until you get to Phase C start do you have a reasonable chance of having some of those numbers."

Jon Morse, director of NASA's astrophysics division, said during the meeting that since the James Webb Space Telescope was approved in 1999, NASA spent 10 years and roughly $2 billion of the program's estimated $5 billion lifecycle cost to define and develop the mission's design and technical approach. In addition, NASA initiated an independent technology review of the program in 2007 before it successfully completed a preliminary design review in mid-2008.

Yet cost overruns on the program persist.

Morse said NASA projected three years ago it would need $260 million for the telescope in 2011, but since then the need has grown to about $470 million for fiscal 2011.

"And we're still struggling to have adequate reserves in order to treat issues that are coming up," he said.

Morse said cost projections provided by prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and its subcontractors "appear to exceed the available reserves" in 2011 and 2012. NASA has about $45 million in reserve for those years combined.

Robert Burke, vice president of civil and military systems at Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Aerospace, said the company is working closely with NASA and with its industry partners at Ball Aerospace, Alliant Techsystems and ITT to launch the telescope as early as possible, with the lowest possible overall cost.

During the meeting, Sega cited the Air Force's GPS 3 navigation satellite program as an example of successful project planning. Specifically, Sega said the Air Force pushed two vendors vying to build the GPS 3 space segment to rapidly mature capabilities that presented minimal risk while postponing work on more challenging technologies. The program's critical design review is underway, and Sega said the effort is slightly ahead of schedule and within budget.

Morse said comparing a leading-edge astronomy flagship mission to incremental development of a satellite system based on a proven technology is not appropriate.

"There's nothing like this; this is so revolutionary," he told the panel. "It's the complexity and the fact that you just haven't done this before."

Amy Klamper writes for Space News.

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