NASA's Space Vision:

Business Case for Prometheus 1 Needed to Ensure Requirements Match Available Resources

GAO-05-242: Published: Feb 28, 2005. Publicly Released: Mar 22, 2005.

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In 2003, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) initiated the Prometheus 1 project to explore the outer reaches of the Solar System. The Prometheus 1 spacecraft is being designed to harness nuclear energy that will increase available electrical power from about 1,000 watts to over 100,000 watts and enable the use of electric propulsion thrusters. Historically, NASA has had difficulty implementing some initiatives. NASA's failure to adequately define requirements and quantify the resources needed to meet those requirements has resulted in some projects costing more, taking longer, and achieving less than originally planned. Prometheus 1 will need to compete for NASA resources with other space missions--including efforts to return the shuttle safely to flight and complete the International Space Station. GAO was asked to determine (1) whether NASA is establishing initial justification for its investment in the Prometheus 1 project and (2) how the agency plans to ensure that critical technologies will be sufficiently mature at key milestones.

NASA is in the process of establishing initial justification for its investment in the Prometheus 1 project but faces challenges establishing preliminary requirements and developing accurate cost estimates. Decision makers will not get their first comprehensive picture of the project's requirements and the resources needed to meet those requirements until the preliminary mission and systems review, scheduled for summer 2005. Defining the project's requirements and developing life-cycle cost estimates by then could be challenging, given the short time frames. The fidelity of this information should improve by the preliminary design review scheduled for 2008. At that time, NASA has the opportunity to use these more refined requirements and cost estimates to establish a sound business case for its investment in the Prometheus 1 project. According to Prometheus 1 project management, a flat funding profile is inadequate to ramp up for the planned 2015 launch of Prometheus 1, the project's first spacecraft to its original destination of Jupiter's Icy Moons. By matching requirements to resources a sound business case would allow NASA to determine whether trade-offs in the design of the spacecraft or the agency's expectations are needed to avoid outstripping available resources. Significant program cost and schedule increases in past programs can be traced to not matching requirements with resources at preliminary design review. While development of the Prometheus 1 technologies is under way, each will require extensive advancement before they are mature enough to support reliable cost estimates. NASA is preparing technology development plans that include measurable criteria to ensure the Prometheus 1 technologies are on track for meeting NASA's maturity requirements through the end of the preliminary design phase. GAO's best practices work has shown, however, that establishing a formal business case based on a knowledge-based approach that includes matching requirements and available resources--which include technical and engineering knowledge, time, and funding--and controls to ensure that sufficient knowledge has been attained at critical junctures within the product development process is an essential part of any product development justification. NASA's current policy does not require projects to develop knowledge-based business cases that match requirements to available resources and include controls to ensure that sufficient knowledge has been attained. Therefore, the agency had not planned to develop such a business case for Prometheus 1. Since GAO provided our draft report to NASA for comment, the agency released its fiscal year 2006 budget request that includes changes to Prometheus 1. If properly implemented, these changes could be positive steps in addressing the findings and recommendations in this report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its February 28, 2005 report, "NASA'S SPACE VISION: Business Case for Prometheus Needed to Ensure Requirements Match Available Resources" (GAO-05-242), GAO questioned whether NASA had established initial justification for its investment in the Prometheus 1 Project and how the agency planned to ensure that critical technologies were mature. NASA started the Prometheus 1 program in 2002 to develop nuclear power and propulsion systems for deep space probes like the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. GAO reported that the agency faced challenges preparing preliminary requirements and cost estimates and that critical technologies would require extensive advancement before they could satisfy requirements. GAO also noted that the approved Prometheus 1 funding profile was inadequate to support the planned mission, a 2015 launch to Jupiter's Icy Moons. GAO recommended that the NASA Administrator identify the level of resources NASA is committing to the project and direct project officials to develop requirements based on this resource constraint. NASA concurred with GAO's recommendation and deferred the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission based on concerns over cost and technical complexity. NASA is shifting the focus of Prometheus Project from developing nuclear power and propulsion systems needed for deep space probes like the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter to the development of space-qualified nuclear systems, such as, surface nuclear power, nuclear thermal, and nuclear electric propulsion systems needed to support the near term goals of NASA's Vision for Space Exploration. In light of these actions, NASA eliminated the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter Mission from its fiscal year 2006 budget request. The elimination of the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission reduces NASA's funding needs by $1.22 billion through fiscal year 2009. Based on this reduction, GAO are claiming a $1.22 billion accomplishment. In net present value this equates to $1.14 billion.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should identify at PMSR the level of resources the agency is committing to the project and direct project officials to develop project requirements based on this resource constraint.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO is closing this recommendation as not implemented because NASA has drastically changed the Prometheus project. In response to GAO's other recomendation--that the NASA Administrator identify the level of resources NASA is committing to the Prometheus project and direct project officials to develop requirements based on this resource constraint--NASA deferred the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission and shifted the focus of the Prometheus Project to the development of other space-qualified systems. While the content of GAO's second recommendation is applicable to any development effort, it was aimed specifically at the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter focused Prometheus project. Consequently, GAO is closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should ensure that prior to proceeding beyond PDR (currently planned for 2008) a sound business case is established which includes confirmation that (1) critical technologies have been successfully demonstrated as mature, (2) systems engeneering has been conducted to support requirements/cost trade-off decisions, (3) requirements and resource estimates have been updated based on the results of the preliminary design phase, (4) knowledge based criteria are established at each critical juncture to ensure that relevant product development knowledge is captured, and (5) decision reviews are held to determine that appropriate knowledge was captured to allow a move to the next phase.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

 

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