New mission for NASA: control and understand costs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NASA needs a more coherent way of projecting and controlling costs, especially on its priciest missions, a panel of experts advised on Tuesday.

The space shuttle Discovery STS-131 lifts off from launch pad 39 A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida April 5, 2010. REUTERS/Pierre Ducharme

Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the space agency, need to use the same methods to calculate and track costs, the National Research Council panel said.

NASA asked for the report as it struggled to find a new direction after a controversial decision to dump an over-budget and behind-schedule program to revisit the moon and as it winds down the space shuttle program.

“Cost and schedule considerations are important for NASA missions,” said Ronald Sega of Colorado State University, who led the panel. “Although the agency is already taking action to address these issues, NASA needs a comprehensive plan to improve the mission planning and development process.”

The report notes NASA has modified the way it budgets programs and has asked for independent appraisals of cost and technical risks. But it is too early to tell how well these changes can help limit costs, the panel said.

And NASA still does not have an overall strategy to keep its earth and space science missions on budget.

Congress currently considers the first appropriations bill estimates to be the baseline cost of any project or mission, but NASA, Congress and the OMB should instead look at estimates that cover the life of the mission from preliminary design review through completion of operations, the report said.

For example, some past mission cost estimates did not include the cost of the launch, the report pointed out.

NASA should pay particular attention to the cost and schedule of missions that will run $500 million or more, the report said. Otherwise, when these big missions go over budget, they can threaten the entire science budget.

President Barack Obama outlined his new vision for NASA in April. It scuttles predecessor George W. Bush’s plan to build a base on the moon and instead looks to deeper space missions, including robotic missions, and more use of outside contractors.

The U.S. space agency got an extra $6 billion in the latest federal budget but a separate report from the National Research Council in May found many of NASA’s research labs are old, and budget cuts had jeopardized scientific research.

Editing by Todd Eastham