NASA faces broad challenges in meeting major program cost and schedule projections, each with deep roots in the five-decade-old organization and currently exacerbated by a tough budget environment that is lowering buying power, the agency’s inspector general (IG) cautions.

Those challenges include a culture of optimism, technical obstacles, unstable budgets and a lack of small program opportunities for promising managers to gain experience, according to IG Paul Martin in his Sept. 27 report.

Michael Ryschkewitsch, NASA’s chief engineer, concurred with the themes raised by Martin, most echoing issues perennially raised by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congressional Budget Office and others involved in space policy oversight.

While characterizing NASA’s optimism as a “necessary” core value if it is to accomplish “challenging tasks” assigned by the White House and Congress, the chief engineer said the agency is making new efforts to address the issue. They include the use of “Formulation Agreements” that require managers to develop risk mitigation strategies and participate in reviews intended to hasten the identification of cost and technical issues. Project managers are expected to demonstrate a technical readiness level of 6 before reaching the preliminary design review stage, Ryschkewitsch noted.

The IG, whose auditors spoke with 85 past and current administrations and managers, spotlighted the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) as examples of projects whose difficulties can cause agency-wide collateral damage.

“Since its first annual assessment of NASA projects in 2009, the GAO has consistently reported on cost growth and schedule delays in the Agency’s major projects,” according to the report. “For example, in its 2012 assessment GAO reported an average development cost growth of approximately 47 percent, or $315 million, much of which was attributable to JWST. As GAO noted, cost and schedule increases on large projects like JWST can have a cascading effect on NASA’s entire portfolio,” according to the report.

Three years ago, NASA estimated JWST’s development costs at  $2.6 billion with a launch date of 2014. The designated Hubble Space Telescope replacement’s development price is now projected at $6.2 billion and launch has slipped to 2018. MSL, which reached Mars in August, launched two years late, after development costs rose from $969 million to $1.77 billion.

The agency’s planetary science line is paying a heavy price.

“As the president and the Congress work to reduce federal spending and lower the nation’s budget deficit, NASA’s ability to deliver projects on time and within budget is more important than ever,” Martin sats. “Like most federal agencies, NASA faces constrained budgets for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the agency has received a diminishing proportion of the federal budget, currently about 0.5 percent of the budget compared to a high of 4.4 percent in 1966, and its annual funding adjusted for inflation is less than it was in 1994.”