NASA's Deep Space Network:

Current Management Structure Is Not Conducive to Effectively Matching Resources with Future Requirements

GAO-06-445: Published: Apr 27, 2006. Publicly Released: May 22, 2006.

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The President's Vision for Space Exploration calls for human and robotic missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. In response, over the next two decades, NASA may spend $100 billion on new technologies and facilities that will require reliable ground communications to achieve those missions. Presently, that communications capability is provided by NASA's Deep Space Network--a system of antennas located at three sites around the world. However, the Network faces challenges that may hinder its provision of current and future mission support. This report discusses (1) the significant operational challenges faced by the Deep Space Network and (2) the extent to which NASA is integrating the Network into its future communications plans.

While NASA's Deep Space Network can meet most requirements of its current workload, it may not be able to meet near-term and future demand. The system--suffering from an aging, fragile infrastructure with some crucial components over 40 years old--has lost science data during routine operations and critical events. In addition, new customers find they must compete for this limited capacity, not just with each other, but also with legacy missions extended past their lifetimes, such as NASA's Voyager, that nonetheless return valuable science. Program officials doubt they can provide adequate coverage to an increasing set of new mission customers, especially if they increase dramatically under the President's Vision. The Deep Space Network's future utility is also in question because NASA does not currently match funding for space communications capabilities with agency wide space communications requirements. While NASA created an agency level entity to review the technical requirements for integrating assets like the network into an agency wide space communications architecture for the future, that entity does not address program level requirements nor influence investment decisions. Control over such requirements and funding remains with the mission directorates and programs themselves. This disconnect allows programs to invest in capabilities that may undercut agency wide goals for space communications. After this review was initiated, NASA began to study how to better manage this gap between agency-level requirements and program-level funding, but no recommendations for action have yet been proposed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of GAO's recommendation, NASA established a new Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) office in October 2006. This new office is a single entity responsible for the management of NASA's deep space and near Earth space networks. Prior to its creation, these entities were managed independently in associated Mission Directorates. The SCaN Office provides an agency-level focus for all space communications requirements--including those at the program level--and decision making regarding space communications investments. Additionally, NASA established a Space Communications Board of Directors as a strategic level forum for space communications assets to advocate modifications to their assets and for missions to provide feedback. Its objectives include reviewing and approving architecture and system-level trades and approving investments in future systems-level changes and capabilities for consideration at the agency-level.

    Recommendation: As NASA's task group on space communications considers how program requirements can be better integrated into overall agency goals for space communications capabilities and in carrying out its task, the NASA Administrator should direct the group to consider determine how program-level requirements for space communications programs can be identified and communicated to agency-level decision makers. While considering this recommendation and the task at hand, the group should also consider the importance of having shared knowledge and communication about these issues openly with all entities involved.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of GAO's recommendation and the work conducted by NASA's task group on space communications, a new office called the Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) Office was created within the Office of Space Operations at NASA in October 2006. The office maintains an agency-level focus for all space communications requirements and decision-making for NASA space communications assets. The Office is responsible for developing an integrated agency space communications and navigation program plan for all existing space networks. Previously, these assets were managed independently within their associated Mission Directorates.

    Recommendation: As NASA's task group on space communications considers how program requirements can be better integrated into overall agency goals for space communications capabilities and in carrying out its task, the NASA Administrator should direct the group to consider identify what priority program-level requirements have in agency-level decisions affecting space communications. While considering this recommendation and the task at hand, the group should also consider the importance of having shared knowledge and communication about these issues openly with all entities involved.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, the agency concurred with this recommendation, but has not yet taken the actions necessary to implement it. However, in its letter to the Congress, the agency explained that capabilities gaps are being more fully identified and a fuller architecture is being defined to address those gaps. NASA provided subsequent documentation to GAO in 2007 and in 2009 that described the roles and responsibilities of and plan for its Space Communications and Navigation Office, which is responsible for the agency's communications networks, including the Deep Space Network (DSN). However, the documentation NASA provided to close this recommendation did not include information specific to the management of the DSN or the resources necessary to address any capability gaps. As this recommendation is focused on program-level improvements to the DSN to address such gaps, GAO has not received sufficient evidence demonstrating that this recommendation has been addressed by NASA and is closing the recommendation as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To better position the Deep Space Network to meet existing workload challenges and prepare the network for future deep space communications responsibilities, the NASA Administrator should direct DSN to develop a plan to address any gap between those capabilities and requirements and identify the estimated costs of any enhancements needed.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, the agency concurred with this recommendation, but has not yet taken the actions necessary to implement it. However, in its letter to the Congress, the agency identified actions it is taking to achieve closure. NASA provided subsequent documentation to GAO in 2007 and in 2009 that described the roles and responsibilities of and plan for its Space Communications and Navigation Office, which is responsible for the agency's communications networks, including the Deep Space Network (DSN). However, the documentation NASA provided to close this recommendation did not include information specific to the management of the DSN and how it can meet future requirements with current capabilities. As this recommendation is focused on program-level improvements to the DSN to meet those requirements, GAO has not received sufficient evidence demonstrating that this recommendation has been addressed by NASA and is closing the recommendation as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To better position the Deep Space Network to meet existing workload challenges and prepare the network for future deep space communications responsibilities, the NASA Administrator should direct DSN to determine the extent to which the program's current capabilities can support those identified requirements.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, the agency concurred with this recommendation and, as described in its letter to the Congress, believes that it already addressed this recommendation with a roadmap document that was developed in 2004. However, in the report, GAO identifies this document, but does not believe it sufficiently addresses the recommendation. NASA provided subsequent documentation to GAO in 2007 and in 2009 that described the roles and responsibilities of and plan for its Space Communications and Navigation Office, which is responsible for the agency's communications networks, including the Deep Space Network (DSN). However, the documentation NASA provided to close this recommendation did not include information specific to the management of the DSN, specifically with regard to program requirements in the near and long term. As this recommendation is focused on understanding the requirements of the DSN, GAO has not received sufficient evidence demonstrating that this recommendation has been addressed by NASA and it will be closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To better position the Deep Space Network to meet existing workload challenges and prepare the network for future deep space communications responsibilities, the NASA Administrator should direct DSN to identify total program requirements for deep space communications capabilities for the near and long term, in terms better defined than the single coverage commitment of 95 percent.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of the GAO recommendation, NASA established a Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) Office to more fully and efficiently address the program level requirements of the agency's space communications assets at the agency level. This Office is responsible for developing an integrated agency space communication and navigation program and budget plan, in coordination with the Mission Directorates, that addresses the needs of the various space communications assets. Additionally, NASA established a Space Communications Board of Directors whose responsibilities include providing a strategic level forum for assessing and improving agency space communications and data systems practices, policies, standards, procedures and capabilities, while also providing agency-wide policy guidance for activities associated with NASA space communications operations.

    Recommendation: As NASA's task group on space communications considers how program requirements can be better integrated into overall agency goals for space communications capabilities and in carrying out its task, the NASA Administrator should direct the group to consider establish how the agency can identify program-level investments needed to address program requirements that support agency wide goals for space communications and how to coordinate those investments to avoid duplication and additional costs. While considering this recommendation and the task at hand, the group should also consider the importance of having shared knowledge and communication about these issues openly with all entities involved.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

 

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