Lawmakers scold NASA for cost overruns

Lawmakers scold NASA for cost overruns
© Getty

Lawmakers at a hearing on Thursday scolded NASA officials over a recent report that found the space agency's major projects are running over-budget and over-schedule.

“Unfortunately, NASA has been plagued for years with contract management issues which have resulted in substantial cost overruns and schedule slips,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Space, at his panel's hearing.

Rep. Clay HigginsGlen (Clay) Clay HigginsThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Immigration drama grips Washington Lawmakers scold NASA for cost overruns Trump's shifting trade stance a key question for gas exporters MORE (R-La.) attributed the problems to a “culture of optimism” coupled with a “too big to fail attitude” among project managers.

The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that four of NASA's highest-profile programs — the Space Launch System, the Orion Spacecraft, the Commercial Crew Program and the James Webb Space Telescope — face significant cost and deadline problems.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Webb telescope, which is intended to be a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, recently delayed its launch by 19 months and will cost more than $8 billion.

The average launch delay for NASA increased from 7 months in 2017 to 12 months in 2018—the highest GAO has reported to date. 

Lawmakers weighed solutions to address NASA's issues, including the creation of a contractor watchlist, which would highlight underperforming contractors who would not be eligible for work for a period of time.

The contractor watchlist is one proposal in the 2018 NASA Authorization Act.

Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithLawmakers scold NASA for cost overruns Big Tobacco’s smoke and mirrors revived by Pruitt’s science transparency policy Freedom Caucus bruised but unbowed in GOP primary fights MORE (R-Texas), the chairman of the full House Science Committee, pressed GAO officials on which contractors they would include.

“It’s a difficult question because in some cases there’s a shared responsibility between NASA and the contractor,” said Cristina Chaplain, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at GAO, said.

She cited the Harris Corporation, a contractor that worked on the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), which measured the earth's reflected sunlight and thermal radiation. The project was cancelled in January after technical issues and a spike in costs.

"Pioneering new technologies for space is always challenging," Kristin Jones, senior manager of communications at the Harris Corporation, told The Hill in a statement Thursday after the hearing, "yet the Radiation Budget Instrument was 80 percent complete and back on track when the program was cut."

"We were so committed to the program that we offered to cap costs to see the project through to completion. We remain hopeful that this technology will be useful in the future. Harris has successfully supported NASA missions for decades," she added.

At the hearing, Paul Martin, the NASA inspector general, said the key to keeping projects on budget and on schedule is increased oversight. 

“[We need] more frequent conversations with members of Congress, more fidelity to cost-estimating that NASA does right now, and the occasional example that projects, large or small, are going to be terminated if they go too far over cost and schedule,” Martin told the subcommittee.

Daniel Dumbacher, former NASA program manager and current executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said Congress should accept some responsibility for the struggles with funding and scheduling.

“The current budgeting process, including the regular use of continuing resolutions, late year appropriations, and threats of government shutdowns, results in endless, multiple planning scenarios,” he said. “Such irregularities lead to inefficiencies in planning and technical execution.” 

But lawmakers returned to NASA's responsibilities to better manage its projects.

Rep. Higgins said NASA has a special obligation to the American people because of the amount of funding they receive.

NASA’s current budget is $19.1 billion.

Higgins said a “tremendous amount of American treasure” is invested in the agency's major projects.

“Innovation is the foundation of everything NASA does, and we cannot encourage innovation and discovery without accepting some level of risk and uncertainty,” said NASA associate administrator Stephen Jurczyk.

This story was updated at 4:43 p.m.