D. Dowd Muska


The High Price of the Wrong Stuff

November 29, 2012

In space no one can hear taxpayers scream.

Year after year, Washington promises that it will competently procure and operate its spy satellites, communication constellations, planetary probes, orbital observatories, and launch vehicles. Yet 2012 brought little change -- a predictable stream of reports, studies, and press accounts confirmed that space remains a sinkhole for federal revenue.

The Monday before Thanksgiving, the Government Accountability Office released an assessment of NASA’s implementation of earned value management (EVM) -- a method devised by the Department of Defense in the 1960s to “provide accurate assessments of … progress, produce early warning signs of impending schedule delays and cost overruns, and provide unbiased estimates of anticipated costs at completion.”

The results: NASA’s performance has been “uneven,” and “only a few” of the projects scrutinized “were able to produce reliable EVM data.”

“NASA,” auditors concluded, “is not making full use of a key tool that could help it address the cost and schedule issues that have kept NASA acquisition management on GAO’s high risk list for more than 20 years.”

The EVM analysis arrived two months after an internal investigation of the “major challenges” that “managers face in carrying out their duties.” NASA’s inspector general admitted that the agency’s programs “cost significantly more to complete and take longer to develop than originally promised,” and enumerated several reasons for the constant screw-ups. Leading the way are denial and wishful thinking -- i.e., an “optimistic culture” that “contributes to development of unrealistic plans and performance baselines that fail to account for all relevant risks.” Presidents and congresscritters are also to blame. They’re responsible for “funding instability” that fosters “inefficient management practices.” And NASA staffers argue that “engineers are primarily operating as overseers of work performed by contractors rather than gaining experience building instruments and spacecraft in-house.”

Let’s examine two manifestations of NASA’s monotonously inadequate return on “public investment.” The Mars Science Laboratory, which stuck its landing in an unquestionably impressive fashion this summer, was conceived as a $650 million mission. Expenditures are now predicted to top $2.5 billion. (The rover launched two years behind schedule, too.) The expected price for the James Webb Space Telescope, which was to be in service as early as 2008, was as miserly as $500 million. No longer -- the observatory won’t commence its stargazing until 2018 (probably later), at a price tag of $8.8 billion.

Ten years ago NASA, partnering with the military and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, began work on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The constellation, a state-of-the-art replacement for aging weather satellites, didn’t benefit from the tri-bureaucracy approach. Over eight years, mismanagement and technical glitches doubled its budget. The Obama administration restructured NPOESS, but the ineptitude rolls on. In 2010, the non-military system to be overseen by NASA and NOAA had a budget of $11.9 billion. Currently, the sum is $14.6 billion. The DOD continues to access its legacy weather satellites, but it’s uncertain how long they’ll last. The GAO suspects that a coverage gap -- perhaps months, perhaps years -- could strike as early as 2014. If it does, “forecasters will not be able to update their … models using the most recent satellite observations.”

The Pentagon’s inability to keep its space procurements on time and on budget probably surpasses NASA’s. In March the GAO testified before Congress that the burdens of “the major [defense] space acquisition programs have increased by about $11.6 billion -- 321 percent -- from initial estimates for fiscal years 2011 through 2016.” The latest generation of Global Positioning System satellites -- GPS Block IIF -- is experiencing a cost overrun of more than 300 percent. In August, Space News obtained a letter from a top DOD official who disclosed to lawmakers that the expense of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle purchases “has more than doubled since 2004, to nearly $70 billion.” The notoriously reckless Missile Defense Agency, in the language of an April GAO report, “is still operating at a fast pace, as production and fielding of assets remains, in many cases, ahead of the ability to test and validate them.”

When it acts to protect Americans’ lives and liberties, the federal government plays a legitimate role off-planet. But Washington spends far more money than it should on essential space systems, and refuses to shift its superfluous activities to the for-profit and charitable sectors.

Sequestration-induced austerity would sting behemoth aerospace contractors and the fedpols who pamper them. Good. A broad, permanent pruning is necessary. Make it so.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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