COVID-19 Delays to Cost NASA $3 Billion

High-resolution illustration of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope against a starry background. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will cost NASA an estimated $3 billion due to program delays, according to a report from the space agency’s Office of Inspector General.

The report focused on the pandemic’s impact on 30 major programs and project with life-cycle costs of at least $250 million.

“These major programs and projects accounted for approximately $1.6 billion of the estimated $3 billion total COVID impact reported by NASA,” the report said. “To quantify the impacts to these programs and projects, we reviewed (1) estimated COVID-19 related costs; (2) estimated COVID-19 related project life-cycle delays; and (3) COVID-19’s impact on NASA’s domestic and international program and project partners. We did not evaluate the Agency’s compliance with congressional reporting requirements regarding cost growth and schedule delays.”

Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft on Pad 39B. (Credit: NASA)

The Space Launch System (SLS), James Webb Space Telescope and Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope accounted for 53 percent of the $1.6 billion cost impact relating to major programs, the report said. The Orion crew vehicle, Europa Clipper program and Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite accounted for another 20 percent.

The three main elements of NASA’s Artemis lunar program — SLS, Orion and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) — accounted for $572.5 million in additional COVID-19 related costs. The uncrewed Artemis I flight test was delayed by three months.

The $3.9 billion Roman Space Telescope was the highest individual program with $402.9 million in additional costs and a six-month launch delay from December 2025 to June 2026.

Shown fully stowed, the James Webb Space Telescope’s Deployable Tower Assembly that connects the upper and lower sections of the spacecraft will extend 48 inches (1.2 meters) after launch. (Credits: Northrop Grumman)

The pandemic added $100 million to the $9.7 billion Webb telescope, whose launch was delayed by seven months to Oct. 31, 2021. The cost of the $4.3 billion Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s frozen moon increased by $97 million.

Other programs to suffer significant impacts included:

  • NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite;
  • Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER);
  • Low Boom Flight Demonstrator;
  • Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT);
  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SNGSS);
  • Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx);
  • Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH); and
  • Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

The audit also found that COVID-19 had moderate impacts on:

  • International Space Station (ISS);
  • Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART);
  • Mars Perseverance Rover;
  • Dragonfly mission to Titan;
  • Psyche asteroid mission;
  • Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP);
  • Landsat 9 Earth observation satellite;
  • On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing–1 mission; and
  • solar electric propulsion development.
This high-resolution still image is part of a video taken by several cameras as NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA was able to launch the Mars Perseverance Rover at the end of July during a launch window that only occurs every 26 months when the planets are in the proper alignment. The rover’s name honors the ability of the agency to complete work on the program despite the pandemic. Perseverance landed on Mars on Feb. 18.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, and Lucy asteroid mission suffered minimal impacts.

The Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) project, which aims to develop technology that will allow aircraft to be propelled by megawatt-class power systems, suffered a delay of eight to 12 months in its preliminary design review.

The table below shows estimated cost increases and schedule delays resulting from the pandemic.

ProgramEstimated Life-cycle CostEstimated FY 2020 ImpactEstimated Future ImpactEstimated Total ImpactEstimated Schedule Impact
Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope$3.9B$3M$399.9M$402.9M6-month launch delay to June 2026
Space Launch System$11.5B$8M$355M$363M3-month schedule delay for Artemis I
Orion Crew Vehicle$12.2B$5M$141M$145MImpact of the delayed delivery of the second European Service Module is at least 3 months and Lockheed component supplier delays are multiple months (being assessed)
Exploration Ground Systems$3.4 B$12.1M$53.4M$64.5MSchedule impact TBD
James Webb Space Telescope$9.7BNone reported$100M$100M7-month launch delay to Oct. 31, 2021
Europa Clipper$4.3B$7M$90M$97M4- to 6-month delay in hardware builds and system testbed progress
PACE$890M$60M$29.2M89.2M9-month launch delay
NISAR$867M$10.4M$36M$46.4M7-month launch delay to January 2023
Mars Perseverance Rover$2.7B$13M$25M$38MNo schedule impact
On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing–1$1.8B$1M$36.8M$37.8M1-month delivery delay of Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot Modular Antenna Assembly
Psyche$993M$19.8M$16.4M$36.2MNo schedule delay reported
SWOT$755M$22.6M$8M$30.6M4-month delay to the management agreement launch date/schedule from February 2022 to June 2022
Space Network Ground Segment$1.5BNone$26M$26MWhite Sands Test Facility closed onsite access from March to August 2020
PUNCH$220 – $265MNone Reported$23.1$23.1MPotential 9- to 10-month launch delay from February 2023 to November 2023
Low Boom Demonstrator$583M$22.2MTBDTBDApproximately 4-month delay to first flight
ISS$94.4B (through 2026)$1.8M$18.9M$20.7MNo schedule delays reported
Lucy$981MNone reported$16M$16M4-month delay to assembly, test, and launch operations
IMAP$776MNone$15M$15M3-month Preliminary Design Review delay from February 2021 to May 2021
Landsat 9$839M$459,000$13.5M$13.96M1-month launch delay
VIPER$350-$435MNone reported$12.2M$12.2MSchedule impact TBD
SPHEREx$451MNone reported$8-19M$8-19M10-month launch delay to June 2024
DART$314M$2.6M$3.8M$6.4M25-day delay to integration & test
Commercial Crew$8.5M$2.2M$2.3M$5.5MNo schedule impact reported
Dragonfly$2-2.3B$80,000$5.3M$5.38MSchedule impact TBD
SOFIA$3BNone$2M$2M70 flights cancelled and 6-month delay to closing out a cancelled instrument development effort
Laser Communications Relay Demonstration$311M$100,000$500,000$600,000No schedule impact reported
Solar Electric Propulsion$336M$500,00TBDTBD3-month delay of Plasma Diagnostic Package Critical Design Review from February 2021 to May 2021
Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration$311.8 – $469.4MNone reportedNone reportedNone reported8- to 12-month delay for Preliminary Design Review

The report found that 90 percent of NASA’s workforce was working from home by mid-April 2020 due to the pandemic. Twelve of the agency’s major facilities were closed, with the others transitioning to in-person support for “mission critical” operations only.

“To accomplish this dramatic shift in operations, NASA had to make difficult decisions about which missions to prioritize (designated ‘excepted projects’) and which ones to pause or delay. Although NASA managers build schedule margin into their plans to address unforeseen circumstances, in many cases this was insufficient to absorb the full impact of delays caused by COVID-19 in FY 2020,” the report said.

Congress passed the $2.3 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020. The amount given to NASA wasn’t sufficient to ameliorate the shortfall.

“NASA received $60 million under the CARES Act and the Agency directed the funds across seven broad categories to fund potential mission delays and contractor costs, enhanced information technology infrastructure, facility cleaning, and personal protective equipment,” the report said.

Read the full report.