NASA Laser Communications Project Running Behind Schedule, Over Budget

Laser Relay Data Demonstration project (Credit: Universities Space Research Association)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A NASA project to demonstrate advanced optical laser communications in space is running nearly $50 million over budget and 14 months behind schedule, according to a recent assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) project is designed to advance optical communication technology for use on near-Earth and deep space missions.

LCRD will use bi-directional laser communications between a satellite and ground stations. NASA plans to transfer the technology to industry once it is successfully demonstrated.

Program officials told the GAO that LCRD’s schedule has slipped, in part, due to continued integration and test delays with the spacecraft on which the instrument will be hosted.

LCRD will fly as part of the U.S. Air Force Space Test Program. The military service has contracted out the spacecraft.

Engineers have also experienced technical challenges with the laser communications instrument.

“For example, officials told us that during testing, they discovered that the capacitors on the flight modems and ground modems were reversed,” GAO said. “The project fixed the capacitor configuration, which in the case of the flight modems involved removing the modem boxes from the instrument and then reinstalling them.”

As a result of the difficulties, the project’s budget has risen from $262.7 million to $310.5 million, an increase of $47.8 million or 18 percent. The launch date has slipped from November 2019 to January 2021.

The GAO assessment of the LCRD project is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees

Government Accountability Office
April 2020

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 with and will be a payload on a U.S. Air Force Space Test Program satellite.

Project Summary

The LCRD project rebaselined its cost and schedule due, in part, to continued delays with the spacecraft bus on which the LCRD instrument will be hosted. In November 2019, NASA set a new life-cycle cost of $310.5 million and a new launch readiness date of January 2021, but the project’s ability to meet the new schedule is already under pressure.

The LCRD project is scheduled to deliver the payload to the spacecraft contractor for integration in January 2020, but the spacecraft contactor continues to experience schedule delays and there are now only 2 months schedule reserve remaining to the revised January 2021 launch readiness date.

In addition to the spacecraft challenges, the project has experienced its own challenges with the instrument. For example, officials told us that during testing, they discovered that the capacitors on the flight modems and ground modems were reversed. The project fixed the capacitor configuration, which in the case of the flight modems involved removing the modem boxes from the instrument and then reinstalling them.

Schedule and Cost Status

In November 2019, NASA approved a rebaseline for the LCRD project reflecting both schedule delays and increasing costs, but the project’s ability to meet the revised schedule is already under pressure.

Credit: GAO

The project’s revised development costs are $128.6 million, or 40 percent, higher than the baseline and the new launch readiness date of January 2021 is 14 months later than the original committed launch readiness date of November 2019.

The LCRD project rebaselined its cost and schedule due, in part, to continued delays on the spacecraft for the Air Force Space Test Program on which the LCRD instrument will be hosted. According to officials, the spacecraft contractor, with whom the Air Force holds the contractual relationship, continues to experience integration and test delays.

LCRD project officials told us that the issues the Air Force project has experienced stem from multiple issues including design disconnects, configuration control, and workmanship. Officials noted that senior management from NASA, the Air Force, and the contractor have increased their attention to the prioritization of work at that facility.

The LCRD project is scheduled to deliver its payload to the spacecraft contractor in January 2020, but NASA continues to track deteriorating schedule performance with the spacecraft contractor. The project now holds about two months of schedule reserve to the new January 2021 launch readiness date based on a schedule the spacecraft contractor presented in November 2019.

According to officials, the project is meeting regularly with the Air Force and its contractor to gauge progress. In addition, officials noted that the contractor has made changes to its management team.

In addition, officials said that the Air Force has changed its contracting approach with the spacecraft contractor by shifting from a cost-plus-fixed-fee type contract to a firm fixed-price contract.

Given the significant work ahead, the project is tracking this change as a risk to LCRD because any changes to the sequence of the contractor’s integration and test activities or payload delivery schedules could result in increased costs to modify the fixed-price contract.

Integration and Test

In addition to issues with the spacecraft, the project has had to address technical and operational issues with the instrument. For example, officials told us that in the course of testing, the project noticed anomalies in the test data related to the instrument’s flight modems.

As a result, the project discovered that the capacitors on the flight modems were reversed, as were the capacitors on the ground modems. The project fixed the capacitor configuration, which in the case of the flight modems involved removing the modem boxes from the instrument and then reinstalling them.

In addition, the project is addressing how the instrument will operate with the ground stations with which it communicates. For example, officials said that data from the LCRD instrument have to travel between multiple sites and they have been working on the timing of the flow of information between them.

The project has also identified and accepted a risk that LCRD’s ability to aim precisely may degrade because of the spacecraft’s vibration on orbit. This risk could result in issues with LCRD connecting with relay stations on the ground as much as one-third of the time the spacecraft is in orbit. If this risk were realized, it would result in the mission not meeting its technology demonstration objectives.

To mitigate this risk, officials are negotiating changes to the spacecraft’s on-orbit maneuvers with the Air Force to perform laser communications at the most optimal times. Officials noted they will need to observe how the spacecraft performs on orbit to determine the best way to operate the spacecraft in light of this risk. Officials stated they will not make design changes to the LCRD instrument due to limitations on cost and schedule.