WASHINGTON — Is the can-do attitude NASA employed to land astronauts on the moon nearly 50 years ago partly to blame for the space program's escalating cost overruns and increased schedule delays today?
NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin thinks so. He told congressional lawmakers Thursday the agency's portfolio of grand achievements including the lunar landing has imbued its workforce with "a mindset that project costs and adherence to schedule are secondary considerations to achieving operational success."
Martin made his point to members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee as they convened a hearing to review significant cost and deadline problems NASA is confronting.
The Government Accountability Office reported last month that "cost and schedule performance ... has deteriorated" for several major NASA projects. Exact cost overruns are not fully known but launches of major missions were 12 months behind on average, a decade worst.
GAO identified challenges facing four of NASA's most ambitious programs: the Space Launch System, the Orion Crew Vehicle, the James Webb Telescope, and the Commercial crew program:
- The Space Launch System (SLS) that will carry astronauts to Mars was originally scheduled to have its first test flight this year. But experts are predicting a 2020 launch at the earliest due to production issues and a tornado that struck the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans last year where the heavy-lift rocket's core stage is being assembled.
- The Orion vehicle that will carry the astronauts on the SLS; NASA told auditors it expects cost growth for the crew capsule but does not have a current cost estimate.
- James Webb Space Telescope that will replace the Hubble was initially projected to cost $1 billion. It's now estimated to run $8 billion, and that was before the GAO found more delays primarily due to the integration of the various spacecraft elements as well as other technical issues that arose during testing.
- The Commercial Crew program is replacing the mothballed Space Shuttle and will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Originally, certification for flight readiness was supposed to be completed by 2017 but that deadline has long since passed and GAO is warning that both contractors (SpaceX and Boeing) could face additional delays that would push certification until at least late 2019.
Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who chairs the committee, said the report's findings were troubling given that rising expenses for major programs means fewer resources for smaller missions that could get elbowed aside.
"If space exploration is going to continue to earn the public’s trust, then contractors will have to deliver on time and on budget," he said during Thursday's hearing.
Martin cited several causes for NASA's problems including underestimating technical complexity, funding instability, and turnover of project managers. But he took special aim at the agency's "culture of optimism" where agency leaders believe mission success, often at a significantly higher price than originally estimated, will trump concerns about cost and calendar.
"In fact several people offered a name for this phenomenon: the 'Hubble psychology'," the inspector general told the committee. "The Hubble space telescope (launched in 1990) was two years late and about $1 billion more than initial estimates but most people don't remember that. Instead they rightfully remember its stupendous images of the universe."
NASA Associate Administrator Stephen Jurczyk told the committee the agency has developed a sophisticated method known as Joint Confidence Level (JCL) to predict cost and schedule for programs expected to cost at least $250 million and have been using it since 2009.
"Since the agency has established its JCL policy, programmatic performance has significantly improved as NASA has launched more projects at or near their original cost and schedule baselines," he told lawmakers.
And he pointed out that NASA performs tasks no one else on the planet does.
"NASA does mssions that have nver been done before," Jurczyk said. "The Parker Solar Probe will dive into the sun's corona. The James Webb Space Telescope will unfold itself almost a million miles from Earth and operate at minus-380 degrees Fahrenheit. (And) the Space Launch System will enable humans to travel deep into space."