NASA Space Network facing critical technical, cost challenges

NASA Inspector General report paints bleak picture for agency’s low-Earth orbit network

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The network used to secure connectivity between spacecraft operating in low Earth orbit, such as the International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope and a variety of other commercial and government spacecraft, faces a number of technical and monetary challenges in the next few years.

According to a report issued by the space agency's Inspector General this week said key components necessary for NASA to continue providing Space Network communication services are not meeting planned cost, schedule, and performance goals.

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"Taken together, these delays and cost growth increase the risk that the Space Network will be unable to continue to provide adequate communication services to NASA missions and its customers. In addition, because of budget reductions and other lost revenue, beginning in FY 2016, the Space Network will not have sufficient funding to meet all planned commitments.

Finally, as we had in a prior audit, we found that NASA has not kept up-to-date the rate it charges customers for use of the Space Network and, as a result, may be absorbing costs for services used by other Federal agencies and commercial customers," NASA IG Paul Martin wrote.

Currently, the Space Network consists of a constellation of nine geosynchronous tracking and data relay satellites (TDRS) and three ground stations- two at the White Sands Complex near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a third in Guam.

The Network operates by sending data from a ground station to a TDRS, which then relays the data to the designated spacecraft. Return data from the spacecraft is relayed through a TDRS to a ground station, which in turn sends the data to a location designated by the spacecraft owner or customer.  As a spacecraft moves in orbit around the Earth, its signal moves from one TDRS to another.

NASA has provided these tracking and communications services for more than 30 years, and many of its satellites and ground systems are aging and increasingly difficult to repair. Moreover, the recent decision to extend International Space Station operations until at least 2024 will add to the demand for communications provided by the network, the report states.

During fiscal year FY 2014 , the Space Network plans to perform more than 175,000 hours of service to support 25 to 30 missions, and without these services space hardware worth tens of billions of dollars would be little more than orbital debris, unable to communicate with Earth, the IG report states.

Some specific issues cited by the NASA IG include:

  • Because of budget reductions and other lost revenue, beginning in FY2016 the Space Network will not have sufficient funding to meet all planned commitments for services, including supporting integration of the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS)Project into the Space Network.
  • The SGSS Project focuses on replacing aging hardware and data systems in the Space Network's ground systems. Failure to replace these aging satellites and systems in a timely manner increases the risk that the Space Network will be unable to provide adequate communication and navigational services to its customers and could lead to the loss of critical mission data, or in the worst case, loss of an entire mission.
  • Beginning in FY2014, the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Program (the overarching program that controls all 3 space nets) reduced the Space Network's proposed operating budget from $115 million to $85 million.
  • Although NASA agreed to provide free access to Space Network services for some customers beginning in FY 2014 in exchange for their earlier contributions to thedesign and development of TDRs K and L , it failed to adequately plan for the resulting approximately $70million per year in lost revenue. Consequently the Space Network Project has a projected $ 63 million budget shortfall in FY 2016 and even larger estimated shortfalls in subsequent years.
  • Since 2009, between 9 and 13 external customers have used Space Network assets each fiscal year and reimbursed NASA between $2.1 and $3.1 million. In September 2010, we reported that NASA had not updated the rates it charged customers for use of the Space Network for more than 4 years. Following our audit, NASA agreed to update the rate annually. However, in this audit we found that NASA had not updated the rates for FY 2014 and, as of March 2014, continued to charge FY2013 rates that may not accurately capture current operating costs.

For its part NASA management concurred with most of the findings of its IG and made a list of potential responses to the findings, including a reexamination of costs and reimbursements of the Space Network components.  NASA also said it was looking to examine options to increase funding for the Space Network.

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