4 reasons why NASA projects violate deadlines and inflate the budget

Original author: Robert N. Charette
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Managers believe that their projects are “too big to fail,” and believe that future scientific progress will justify delays and budget overruns.

The Committee on Science, Space and Technology at the US House of Representatives last week held hearings about the cost overruns and deadlines for developing NASA projects. The hearing was held on the basis of the report of the United States Audit Office (Government Accountability Office, GAO), released in May, according to which the cost and schedule of a portfolio of major NASA projects (such projects that cost more than $ 250 million) has “degraded” over the past year.

GAO reports that the growth in the value of current projects, which number 17, has increased by 18.8% - last year this figure was 15.6%. Moreover, the average delay in launching a project from this list has reached 12 months — these are the biggest delays at NASA that GAO has observed in the last ten years.

According to GAO, “risky management decisions, unforeseen technical problems — some of which could have been avoided, and some not — and production flaws” are to blame for this. For example, the launch of the James Webb telescope for $ 8.8 billion was again postponed , from October 2018 to May 2020 (and this is at least). NASA threw problems with the project into "errors that could have been avoided " and testing plans that turned out to be " too optimistic ." Initially, the telescope was planned to be launched in 2011 for $ 1.6 billion.

GAO reports that four missions were mainly in overestimating the cost of projects and delaying the launch dates - “ The space launch system"(Space Launch System)," Exploration Ground Systems "," Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment ) and Mars 2020. These four projects, according to GAO, "are experiencing technical problems, supplemented by software difficulties ". In sum, these four projects are responsible for the increase in cost of $ 638 million and 59 launch delays.

Further, GAO writes that although the cost and launch schedules of NASA's portfolio of major projects are degraded," "The reason for this is the current service REPRESENTATIONS cost of the project " Orion", which is likely to increase. Moreover, this increase, which is not yet taken into account in the indicated increase in the cost of projects by 18.8%, may be significant, given that the cost of this project is 22% of all projects developed at NASA, which the amount of pull on $ 30.1 billion. Even a small increase in cost as a percentage can greatly affect the cost of growth. how much will the cost of "Orion" and how much further postponed the launch date, will be announced in the next few weeks.

also listening AI in the House of Representatives is the main inspector of NASA, Paul Martin . In his report , he listed four reasons for the problems with the cost and schedule of the NASA projects, annoying agencymany decades. The first was the problem of the culture of the optimism of NASA managers, known as the " Hubble syndrome ".

NASA managers are accustomed to count - and usually this is the case, according to Martin - that “projects that failed to meet the originally specified cost and terms will receive additional funding, and subsequent scientific and technological success will overshadow all problems with the budget and schedule”. In this regard, even if the project will experience launch delays or exceed the cost, it will not affect the managers of NASA, except for a reprimand, another by the GAO, the chief inspector and Congress.

This “too big to fail” approach is combined with the constant inability to predict the technical complexity of projects. In a sense, this can be understood, given that NASA projects often try to achieve unprecedented things, but it seems that the complexity of integrating and testing projects is underestimated by managers and technical teams on a systematic basis. This behavior worries GAO, especially because the current major NASA projects, which already serve as the main reasons for cost increases and delays, have not even reached the stage of integration, in which most projects face problems.

Another reason NASA is lowering the technical complexity and risks of the project is the desire to “sell” this project at any cost, Martin said. And immediately after the sale, the project becomes too big to fail. Therefore, as the former NASA administrator Michael Grffin (now working as deputy secretary of defense for research and engineering projects ) once admitted , the goal of a NASA project manager is to “launch a project, regardless of what you need to say or do.” A similar approach works in the US Department of Defense, so Griffin should feel at home there.

The third problem addressed by the chief inspector is the instability of funding, depending on the decisions of both Congress and NASA. NASA's allocations have been the subject of political football since 1959; During this period, the agency received annual funding at the very beginning of the fiscal year only seven times. However, the inspector also noted that NASA did not alleviate its own fate in any way, being engaged in overly optimistic planning and decision-making.

The last problem highlighted in the report was the cultivation and preservation of experienced project managers. Engineers complain that they do not have enough direct work with engineering management to gain experience, because they spend too much time overseeing the work of contractors. As a result, many young engineers retiring to private companies seems more attractive than working at NASA as contractor supervisors.

However, GAO and Chief Inspector Martin also noted that NASA has taken many steps to improve project management, and that project cost overruns are not as terrible as they were in the past. For example, Martin noted that NASA in 2006 introduced such a thing as “the level of confidence in the cost and schedule of work", which provides" the likelihood that a project will be developed for a certain cost and for a certain time, as a percentage, and also determines the necessary safety reserves of cost and duration. "

The presence of reserves helps NASA to react to the risks early enough and not to turn them into expensive ones problems. The level of confidence in the cost and schedule, fully commissioned in 2009, helped to tame some of the reasons for the increased cost and duration of project development.

Considering the above, the GAO and the chief inspector I Clearly, it is understood that if the cost of projects continues to grow, NASA should not be surprised when Congress decides to limit agency funding.

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