A committee of the National Research Council warned today that steps recently taken by NASA to contain spiraling costs of future space missions won't be enough. The committee's report  doesn't offer any solutions to the perennial problem of scientists and engineers initially underestimating the cost of doing their science in space. But it does strongly recommend that NASA develop "a comprehensive, integrated cost-containment strategy" that early on would rein in overly optimistic cost projections before the agency commits to funding unduly risky missions.
The committee found that the bulk of the cost overruns has come in a small proportion of NASA science missions, mostly among the largest missions. Fourteen missions together accounted for 92% of the increased costs among a total of 40 missions, for example.
The cost overruns of the 14 missions ran from about 10% to about 160% and amounted to a total of about $1.3 billion. The problem involves "a small number of bad actors and NASA's lack of a comprehensive approach to control costs," says planetary scientist and committee member Larry W. Esposito of the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The committee's solution—gleaned from 10 cost-containment studies—includes adding a phase early in the development of proposals for competing mission concepts submitted to NASA "with funding and time to better develop cost estimates and estimates of risk," says Esposito. The shakedown period as well as other key development milestones should include more "parametric" cost estimates that "rely on observations rather than opinion," according to the report. NASA could then, presumably, weed out competing missions that had unrealistic initial cost estimates. The committee also chided NASA for increasing "the size and number of external project reviews to the point that some reviews are counterproductive and disruptive."
Buying space missions isn't like buying pencils, notes Esposito. "Each mission is a complicated and difficult activity; there's always some risk" of underestimating the challenges and resulting costs, he says, but there's still room for improvement.