NASA OIG: Space Communications and Navigation, NASA's Management of the Space Network


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NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin today released a report examining NASA’s efforts to modernize its Space Network, a constellation of nine satellites and three ground stations by which NASA, other Government agencies, and commercial companies communicate with spacecraft operating in low Earth orbit.  Without these Network services, space hardware worth tens of billions of dollars would be little more than orbital debris.

NASA has provided space tracking and communications services for more than 30 years and in fiscal year (FY) 2014 the Space Network plans to perform more than 175,000 hours of service to support 25 to 30 missions.  However, many of the Network’s tracking and data relay satellites (TDRS) and ground systems are aging and increasingly difficult to repair.  Moreover, the recent decision to extend International Space Station operations until 2024 will add to the demand for Network services.  Recognizing the Network’s maintenance, replenishment, and modernization needs, over the past 7 years NASA initiated the TDRS Replenishment Project to replace the satellites and the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) Project to upgrade the ground stations.

In this audit, the Office of Inspector General found that key components of NASA’s Space Network necessary for the Agency to continue providing services are not meeting planned cost, schedule, and performance goals.  Taken together, the delays and cost growth increase the risk that the Space Network will be unable to continue to provide adequate communication services to NASA missions and its customers.

By 2016, three of the satellites NASA is currently using to communicate with and track spacecraft will reach the end of their expected operational lives.  Moreover, a NASA study indicates that one of the spare satellites the Agency has in on-orbit storage is already operating 15 years past its design life and could fail as soon as 2014.  However, NASA currently has only two new third-generation satellites in orbit to replace four aging satellites.  Although NASA had planned to launch another TDRS as early as December 2015, it now expects to delay that launch by as much as 6 years because it lacks funding to procure a launch vehicle.  Further, the Agency’s decision in 2013 not to exercise the option to purchase a fourth satellite at a favorable price will result in NASA paying considerably more for a replacement satellite in the future. 

In addition, the SGSS Project may cost $329 million or 38 percent more than NASA’s baseline commitment agreement of $862 million and the schedule for completion likely delayed by more than 1½ years.  The cost overrun will require SGSS Project managers to reassess their original requirements and the schedule slip means Space Network officials will have to reprioritize and mitigate the Network’s obsolescence risks longer than planned, tasks that will require additional funding.  Moreover, any operations and maintenance savings NASA expected to achieve through implementation of the SGSS Project will be delayed for several years.

Further, because of budget reductions and the loss of other expected revenue, in FY 2016 the Space Network will not have sufficient funding to meet all planned service commitments.  Although NASA agreed to provide free access to Space Network services for some customers beginning in FY 2014 in exchange for their contributions to the design and development of two satellites several years earlier, the Agency failed to adequately plan for the resulting approximately $70 million per year in lost revenue.  Consequently, the Space Network has a projected $63 million budget shortfall in FY 2016 and even larger estimated shortfalls in subsequent years.

We recommended the Agency (1) require the SGSS Project Office to revise its cost estimate and, based on those results, adjust the Project baseline and Agency baseline commitment as necessary; (2) report the appropriate baseline commitment and/or status to Congress; (3) ensure the SGSS Project passes a termination review prior to any rebaselining; and (4) examine options to increase funding for the Space Network. 

The full report can be found on the OIG’s website at http://oig.nasa.gov/ under “Reading Room” or at the following link:  http://oig.nasa.gov/audits/reports/FY14/IG-14-018.pdf 

Please contact Renee Juhans at 202-358-1220 if you have questions.

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