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NASA OIG: The Science Mission Directorate's Mission Extension Process

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Thursday, October 9, 2014

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Dear Associate Administrator Grunsfeld,

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) examined the Science Mission Directorate's (SMD) expenditures for mission operations services, including the process used to decide whether to extend missions beyond the primary operations phase. (See Enclosure I for details on the review's scope and methodology.)

We concluded SMD's Astrophysics, Earth Science, and Heliophysics Divisions conducted Senior Reviews that included all eligible projects and provided budgetary and programmatic guidance for these missions for up to 5 fiscal years (FY). In contrast, we found the Planetary Science Division's Senior Review process focused too narrowly on the short term and unnecessarily excluded some projects. Furthermore, the Division had no documented rationale for extended mission budget guidelines. In our judgment, these shortcomings impair the Planetary Science Division's ability to inform its budget formulation process and ensure the effectiveness and transparency of its Senior Review process.

We also found that while the four SMD Divisions provided project teams with guidance suggesting projects in extended operations should function at reduced costs - Astrophysics and Heliophysics Divisions specifying approximately one-third less than when in prime operations - actual costs for most missions were well above this "mission extension paradigm." Specifically, only 1 of 22 projects (5 percent) that transitioned to extended operations between FYs 2005 and 2013 received a funding reduction at or greater than the stated target of 33 percent in their first year of extended operations. Moreover, 10 of the 22 projects (45 percent) actually received more funding after moving into extended operations.

To improve the effectiveness of the Planetary Science Division's Senior Review process, we recommended the Associate Administrator for SMD require the Planetary Science Division Director to (1) implement a Senior Review approach that includes consideration of proposals for at least the next 4 fiscal years, (2) conduct consolidated reviews, and (3) establish consistency between annual budget submissions and Senior Review extended mission budget guidelines. We also recommended the Associate Administrator (4) develop a standardized approach for mission extension funding that clearly articulates expectations and consistently implements those expectations across all SMD Divisions.

In response to a draft of this report, the Associate Administrator partially concurred with our first recommendation stating SMD will conduct a detailed assessment of its Senior Review practices and develop updated standards that identify where practices should be standardized and where they may be tailored if appropriately justified. The Associate Administrator concurred with the other three recommendations. We consider NASA's planned actions responsive and will close the recommendations upon verification of their completion. We also reviewed management's comments regarding the technical accuracy of the draft and made changes as appropriate. Management's response to the draft report is included as Enclosure II.

Full report

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