GAO: NASA Lunar Plans Lack Cost Estimate, Risk Integration Challenges

Artist’s conception of astronaut in an advanced spacesuit working on the moon. (Credit; NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In March, Vice President Mike Pence said the Trump Administration would use “any means necessary” to accomplish the goal of landing American astronauts on the moon by 2024.

Those means apparently did not include having NASA produce a cost estimate for the first landing mission known as Artemis III. And that has the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concerned.

” Cost estimates provide management with critical cost-risk information to improve control of resources,” GAO said in a report released just before Christmas. “Without a cost estimate for this mission, Congress will not have insight into affordability and NASA will not have insight into monitoring total mission costs.”

The lack of a cost estimate is one of several issues GAO identified with the administration’s decision to move the landing date up by four years from 2028.

[Download full report: NASA Lunar Programs: Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Analyses and Plans for Moon Landing ]

GAO also concluded that NASA:

  • faces possible hardware integration challenges and the need for late changes because the space agency established some requirements for individual lunar programs before finalizing requirements for the overall lunar mission; and,
  • is ill-positioned to communicate to shareholders its reasons for how it is conducting lunar exploration due to a failure to assess a range of alternatives.

GAO recommended that NASA conduct a joint cost and schedule confidence level at the program level for the Artemis III mission. The space agency accepted the recommendation.

GAO noted that NASA plans to mitigate integration risks by holding reviews to ensure that requirements are aligned across the lunar Gateway space station, the crewed lander and other elements of the Artemis lunar exploration effort.

NASA has yet to define exactly how the reviews will be conducted, or set a schedule for them, GAO noted. The watchdog also proposed the space agency establish a lunar exploration control board to oversee integration issues.

“The board could serve as a body to make decisions that affect multiple lunar programs and ensure that changes to components of the lunar architecture do not affect NASA’s ability to accomplish a successful lunar landing,” GAO said.

The space agency did perform studies of various lunar exploration plans, but those fell short of a full assessment of alternatives. NASA plans to make a summary of its studies publicly available.

“GAO best practices state that analyzing alternatives provides a framework to help ensure that entities consistently and reliably select the alternative that best meets the mission need and justify agency decisions,” the government watchdog said.

GAO made six recommendations to NASA, all of which the space agency agreed to implement. GAO recommended NASA:

  • define and determine a schedule for synchronization reviews, including the role of the proposed Lunar Exploration Control Board, to help ensure that requirements between mission and program levels are reconciled;
  • conduct a joint cost and schedule confidence level at the program level for the Artemis III mission;
  • update the lunar Gateway’s overall schedule for 2024 to add a second key decision points (KDP II) review that would occur before system integration;
  • create a life-cycle cost estimate for the Artemis III mission;
  • commit to a completion date and finalize a cohesive document outlining the rationale for selecting its current lunar architecture and programs; and,
  • determine under what conditions it is appropriate to complete an analysis of alternatives, particularly when there are multiple pathways that NASA could pursue in the future.

A summary of the report and GAO’s recommendations follow.

NASA Lunar Programs:
Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Analyses
and Plans for Moon Landing

Government Accountability Office
December 2019
GAO-20-68
Full Report

Why GAO Did This Study

In March 2019, the White House directed NASA to accelerate its plans to return humans to the moon by 4 years, to 2024. To accomplish a lunar landing, NASA is developing programs including a small platform in lunar orbit, known as Gateway, and a lunar lander. NASA plans to use the Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule—two programs with a history of cost growth and schedule delays—to launch and transport crew to Gateway.

The House Committee on Appropriations included a provision in its 2018 report for GAO to review NASA’s proposed lunar-focused programs, including the Gateway program. GAO’s report assesses (1) how NASA updated its lunar plans to support the accelerated 2024 landing timeline; (2) the extent to which NASA has made initial decisions about requirements, cost, and schedule for its lunar mission and programs; and (3) the extent to which NASA analyzed alternatives for its lunar plans, including the Gateway program. GAO analyzed NASA lunar mission and program documents, assessed NASA studies that informed NASA’s lunar plans, and interviewed NASA officials.

What GAO Found

To support accelerated plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2024—four years earlier than planned—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) quickly refocused its acquisition plans. In particular, NASA separated its lunar plans into two phases, with the first phase focused on the systems NASA identified to support the new timeline (see figure). One system, Gateway, includes three components—power and propulsion, habitation, and logistics—to form a small platform in lunar orbit.

NASA has begun making decisions related to requirements, cost, and schedule for programs, but is behind in taking these steps for the whole lunar mission:

  • NASA risks the discovery of integration challenges and needed changes late in the development process because it established some requirements for individual lunar programs before finalizing requirements for the overall lunar mission. NASA plans to take steps to mitigate this risk, such as by holding reviews to ensure that requirements align across programs, but has not yet defined these reviews or determined when they would occur.
  • NASA has made some decisions that will increase visibility into the costs and schedules for individual lunar programs, but does not plan to develop a cost estimate for the first mission. Cost estimates provide management with critical cost-risk information to improve control of resources. Without a cost estimate for this mission, Congress will not have insight into affordability and NASA will not have insight into monitoring total mission costs.

NASA conducted studies to inform its lunar plans, but did not fully assess a range of alternatives to these plans. GAO best practices state that analyzing alternatives provides a framework to help ensure that entities consistently and reliably select the alternative that best meets the mission need and justify agency decisions.

Given NASA’s schedule, conducting this analysis is no longer viable. Instead, NASA intends to create a summary of the studies that informed its lunar plans. However, it has not committed to a completion date. Without a documented rationale, NASA is ill-positioned to effectively communicate its decisions to stakeholders and facilitate a better understanding of its plans.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making a total of 6 recommendations to NASA, including to define and schedule reviews that align requirements across lunar programs; create a cost estimate for the first lunar mission; and commit to a completion date and finalize a cohesive document outlining the rationale for selecting its current lunar plans.

NASA concurred with the recommendations made in this report.

Recommendations and Executive Action

The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations directs the Advanced Exploration Systems division to define and determine a schedule for synchronization reviews, including the role of the proposed Lunar Exploration Control Board, to help ensure that requirements between mission and program levels are reconciled. (Recommendation 1)

The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations directs the Gateway program to conduct a joint cost and schedule confidence level at the program level for the Artemis III mission. (Recommendation 2)

The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations directs the Gateway program to update its overall schedule for 2024 to add a KDP II to occur before system integration. (Recommendation 3)

The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations creates a life-cycle cost estimate for the Artemis III mission. (Recommendation 4)

The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations directs the Advanced Exploration Systems division to commit to a completion date and finalize a cohesive document outlining the rationale for selecting its current lunar architecture and lunar programs. (Recommendation 5)

The NASA Administrator should ensure that the Office of the Chief Engineer determines under what conditions it is appropriate to complete an analysis of alternatives, particularly when there are multiple pathways—including architectures or programs—that NASA could pursue in the future, and document the justification for not completing an analysis. (Recommendation 6)