NASA needs a better way to keep space missions on scheduleand under budget, a new report has found.
The report, released Tuesday, was conducted by the NationalResearch Council, a private nonprofit institution that provides science,technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter. It concludedthat NASA needs a consistent, reliable method of quantifying and trackingcosts.
"Cost and schedule considerations are important for NASAmissions," said Ronald Sega, chair of the committee that wrote thereport, and a professor of systems engineering at Colorado State University in FortCollins, in a statement. "Although the agency is already takingaction to address these issues, NASA needs a comprehensive plan to improve themission planning and development process. Containing costs and staying onschedule will enable additional NASA mission opportunities for earth and spacesciences in the future."
The report suggested that NASA pay particularly closeattention to tracking missions that run more than $500 million and includeincentives to keep program and project managers on budget.
The budgets for these missions tend to grow, and themounting costs can have a major impact on NASA's overall Earth and spacescience mission program, the report stated. The agency should especially focuson examining prices during the early phases of mission development.
President Barack Obama has proposed NASA receive $19 billionfor its 2011 budget. That sum is a slight increase over the agency's 2010budget of $18.3 million. President Obama has also proposed granting NASA anadditional $6 billion over five years to encourage commercial space companiesto develop transportation for astronauts to low-Earth orbit.
The new budget request would cancel NASA's existing moonexploration program, called Constellation, and instead direct the agency topursue trips to an asteroid and Mars.
The council studied at 10 previous independent cost analysesused by NASA during its evaluation. It found that these studies often useddifferent processes to calculate and track costs, and reached divergentconclusions.
For example, some earlier studies found average costoverruns that ranged from 23 percent to 77 percent for specific projects.Others, however, only looked at a mission's development costs ? disregarding launchcosts ? while still others included all costs through the end of each mission.
NASA said it appreciates and values the National ResearchCouncil?s report, and that the agency is already working on some of the issuesit cites. The space agency also sponsored the study.
"It appears we have many of the recommendations alreadyin place," NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington told SPACE.com. "A keyelement will be to adopt these recommendations in a systematic way across ourmany projects. We look forward to reading the entire report and evaluating itsfindings and recommendations."
The report acknowledged that NASA has recently made changesin how missionsare developed and budgeted. However, the report also found that it is tooearly to know how effective these changes will be in containing costs, and thatNASA still lacks an overall strategy to stay within budget for all Earth andspace science missions.
Furthermore, the council suggests that NASA, Congress, andthe Office of Management and Budget (OMB) use the same method to estimate spacemission costs. Currently, these agencies use inconsistent processes. Forexample, some estimates do not include the price of launch or missionoperations in a mission's overall costs.
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Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.