GAO: Laser Communications Mission Delayed by Funding, Redesign Issues

Laser Communications Relay Demonstration satellite (Credit: NASA)

Funding shortfalls and technical challenges have caused a nearly two-year delay in the launch of NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) mission, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

“LCRD entered the implementation phase in April 2017 and formally established its cost and schedule baselines of $262.7 million to launch by November 2019, which is $23.4 million higher and 23 months later than the preliminary cost estimate,” the report stated.

The project, which will demonstrate advancing optical communication technology for use in deep space and near-Earth systems, delayed its confirmation review from late 2013 to April 2017 due to financial and programmatic challenges.

“For example, funding for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 was less than planned, which led the project to halt development of the ground segment for 2 years. The project has also changed management and undertaken numerous replans and descopes since 2013,” the assessment said.

The GAO’s assessment of the LCRD program is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

Laser Communications Relay Demonstration

LCRD is a technology demonstration mission with the goal of advancing optical communication technology for use in deep space and near-Earth systems. LCRD will demonstrate bidirectional laser communications between a satellite and ground stations, develop operational procedures, and transfer the technology to industry for future use on commercial and government satellites. NASA anticipates using the technology as a next generation Earth relay as well as to support near-Earth and deep space science, such as the International Space Station and human spaceflight missions. The project is a mission partner and will be a payload on a U.S. Air Force Space Test Program satellite.

Project Information

NASA Lead Center: Goddard Space Flight Center
International Partners: N/A
Launch Location: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL
Launch Vehicle: Atlas V 551
Mission Duration: 2+ years
Requirement Derived from: NASA Strategic Plan
Budget Portfolio: Space Technology, Research and Development

Project Summary

The LCRD project established its cost and schedule baselines in April 2017 at a higher cost and later schedule than preliminary estimates due to funding, programmatic, and design changes made after preliminary design review in October 2013. The LCRD project has had to delay its schedule, change its
host spacecraft, and adjust its design to accommodate scope changes as well as funding shortfalls in prior years. LCRD has also added a redundant communication capability that adds longevity but also cost and complexity to the spacecraft. In addition, multiple hardware components have been delivered late and are consuming project schedule reserves heading into integration and test.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The LCRD project’s cost and schedule baselines increased compared to its preliminary estimates due to funding, programmatic, and design changes made after preliminary design review in October 2013. LCRD entered the implementation phase in April 2017 and formally established its cost and schedule baselines of $262.7 million to launch by November 2019, which is $23.4 million higher and 23 months later than the preliminary cost estimate. The cost and schedule increases over the preliminary estimate are due in part to externally driven design changes that the project has had to address.

Credit: GAO

The new launch date also reflects the project delaying its confirmation review from late 2013 until April 2017 due to funding and programmatic challenges. For example, funding for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 was less than planned, which led the project to halt development of the ground segment for 2 years. The project has also changed management and undertaken numerous replans and descopes since 2013. As of October 2017, the project was holding cost reserves below levels required by NASA center policy.

Technology

LCRD’s technologies were not mature by preliminary design review. As a technology demonstration, Goddard Space Flight Center does not require technologies to be at technology readiness level 6 at that review. However, the same risks of subsequent technical problems apply to technology demonstrations, which can result in cost growth and schedule delays. Further, because technologies are being demonstrated to support future missions, the project added a high-bandwidth radio transceiver as a backup to the optical modules to increase reliability, redundancy, and longevity.

A drawback of the laser communication system is that it requires an unobstructed line of sight in order to transmit and receive data. The radio transceiver allows LCRD to transmit data with less interruption as the radio transceiver increases redundancy should the line-of-sight be obstructed, and longevity should an optical unit fail during the mission.

In 2017, the proposal for the high-bandwidth radio transceiver came in at a higher than expected cost but LCRD received funding from sources outside the project office. In addition, LCRD is working with its host spacecraft to solve potential on-orbit vibration that could impact data transmission, but the project will have to fund additional damping.

Design

The project held its critical design review in December 2016 with a stable design and then held project confirmation in April 2017, which allowed the project to enter final design and fabrication. The project held its confirmation after its critical design review in part due to adding encryption to the project following its preliminary design review. Adding encryption to the project required a change in host spacecraft to one with proper facility clearances, changes to the interface designs between LCRD and the
new host, and changes to the onboard LCRD hardware to accommodate encryption.

Integration and Test

Late component deliveries have delayed integration and testing and further delays could begin to affect LCRD integration as well as spacecraft integration prior to launch. For example, payload integration and testing has been delayed by about 6 weeks due to a number of late component deliveries. In one instance, delivery of the flight support assembly—which interfaces the LCRD payload to the host spacecraft and maintains the thermal environment—was behind schedule due to late procurement of heaters and temperature sensors. In another, delivery of one of the two flight modems was late due to rework and component replacement.

Project Office Comments

LCRD project officials provided technical comments on a draft of this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.