NASA: Reviews of Major Projects

What GAO found

Continuing a recent trend, NASA’s portfolio of major projects experienced significant cost and schedule overruns, and more projects were added (see figure). Of the 21 major projects in the development phase of NASA’s acquisition process (which includes building and launching the system), 15 were responsible for approximately $12 billion in cumulative cost overruns and 28 years of cumulative schedule delays. But just three projects — the James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Launch System, and Orion — are responsible for more than three-quarters of the cost growth and almost half of the delays.

Cumulative cost and schedule overruns for major NASA projects in development

Cumulative cost and schedule overruns for major NASA projects in development

Over the past year, most of NASA’s projects under development have increased their cost estimates, schedule estimates, or both. Technical issues and new areas were the main causes of overruns. However, COVID-19 exacerbated these challenges with government and contractor closures of facilities and remote working.

Current exceedances and the risk of future COVID-19 issues could have a cascading impact on NASA’s ability to manage its portfolio. NASA posts cost reserves to help projects manage risk. However, when projects deplete these reserves and require additional funding, this may limit the agency’s ability to fund existing missions or launch new ones. For example, NASA officials said some new projects are preparing for later launch dates, in part due to funding constraints caused by other projects’ cost overruns. NASA is taking steps to improve its portfolio management, but it’s too early to determine the results of these efforts.

Why GAO did this study

NASA plans to invest at least $80 billion in its major projects to continue exploring the Earth, the Moon, and the Solar System. Major projects are those costing more than $250 million. One justification contained a provision for GAO to prepare status reports on NASA’s major projects. This is GAO’s 14th annual assessment.

This report describes the cost and schedule performance of NASA’s major projects and GAO’s assessment of the technology development and design stability of these projects. The report also includes individual assessments of major projects.

GAO collected and analyzed data; verified project status reports; and interviewed NASA officials. GAO reviewed projects in the formulation phase (which takes a project through its preliminary design) and those in the subsequent development phase.

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