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U.S. GAO – NASA: Preliminary observations on the management of space telescopes

What was GAO

The current portfolio of the main space telescopes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) includes three projects that vary in cost, complexity and phase of the life cycle of the acquisition.

Table: Current phase, Cost and schedule of projects of the Great Space Telescope of the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

Project Phase

Estimation of the preliminary cost

(dollars in million)

Preliminary schedule
Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope


(initial phase)

3,200-3,800 2024-2026

Current cost estimate [19659011] (dollars in millions)

Change from baseline

(dollars in millions)

Target release date

Change from baseline


Transite Exoplanet Survey Satellite


(creation, launch and operation)

336.7 -41.7 to [19659025] March 2018 -3
James Webb Space Tel escope


(construction, launch and operation)

8,825.4 3,861.8 March -June 2019 57-60

Source: GAO analysis of data from the National Administration of Aeronautics and Space. | GAO-18-277T

to The change in dollars reflects a decrease of $ 26.7 million after the selection of the launch vehicle in 2014 due to the reduction in planned costs and a NASA decision in August 2017 to reallocate $ 15 million from the project headquarters -hold reserves for the wide infrared field study telescope project.

GAO's ongoing work indicates that these projects are progressing each in line with their phase of the acquisition cycle, but also face some challenges. For example, the current launch date of the James Webb Space Telescope project (JWST) reflects a delay of 57-60 months compared to the original project schedule. The preliminary observations from the GAO indicate that this project still has significant integration and tests to complete, with very little reserve of remaining programming to justify the delays. Therefore, there are likely to be additional delays beyond the delay of up to 8 months recently announced, and funds available under the $ 8,000 million Congress cost limit for formulation and development may be inadequate.

NASA learned a number of lessons could consider increasing the likelihood of successful results for their telescope projects, as well as for their larger portfolio of projects, such as their manned space flight projects. For example, twice in the history of the JWST program, the independent reviews found that the program did not have an adequate cost and reserved the schedule. The GAO has discovered that NASA has not applied this learned lesson to all of its major projects, and results similar to JWST have begun to emerge. For example, NASA did not incorporate this lesson with its human space flight programs. In July 2016 and April 2017, GAO discovered that these programs had inadequate levels of programming costs and reserves to cover unexpected cost increases or delays. In April 2017, GAO recommended that NASA re-evaluate the date of the first test flight of the programs. NASA agreed and, in November 2017, announced a launch delay of up to 19 months.

Why GAO did this study

The procurement management has been a long-standing challenge at NASA, although GAO reported improvements that the agency made in recent years. Three space telescope projects are the key enablers for NASA to achieve the scientific objectives of its astrophysics, which include the search for the understanding of the universe. In its budget request for fiscal year 2018, NASA requested some $ 697 million for these three projects, which represents more than 50 percent of NASA's budget for major astrophysics projects. In total, these projects represent an expected investment of at least $ 12.4 billion.

This statement reflects preliminary observations on (1) the current status and cost of NASA's major telescope projects and (2) lessons learned that can be applied to NASA's management of its telescope projects. Based on the work in progress at JWST and the ongoing work on the status of major NASA projects. It is planned to publish both reports in the spring of 2018. This statement is also based on previous GAO reports on acquisitions of large JWST and NASA projects and contributions from NASA.

What GAO recommends

GAO makes no recommendation in this statement, but has made recommendations in previous reports to strengthen NASA's acquisition management of its major projects. NASA has generally agreed with GAO's recommendations and has taken steps to implement them.

For more information, contact Cristina T. Chaplain at (202) 512-4841 or chaplainc@gao.gov.

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