NASA OIG: NASA's Heliophysics Portfolio

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Tuesday, May 7, 2019


Full report


NASA's space missions and much of the U.S. power grid, communications systems, and navigation infrastructure operate in an environment highly susceptible to the Sun. NASA's Heliophysics Division (HPD) and its portfolio of spacecraft, programs, and missions provide observations of solar and geophysical events—also known as "space weather" events—to advance our understanding of the Sun and its interaction with Earth's atmosphere. With a budget of $689 million for fiscal year (FY) 2018, HPD is currently managing 30 missions in various stages of operation and development. The majority of HPD's missions (17 of 30) are in extended operations—meaning they have been successfully launched and are beyond their prime (or initial) operating phase.

HPD's portfolio is heavily influenced by external stakeholders, including the National Research Council (NRC), the National Science and Technology Council (within the Executive Office of the President), and other federal agencies. The NRC has published two heliophysics decadal surveys—the first in 2003 and the second in 2013—identifying broad scientific challenges related to solar and space physics research and recommending a series of missions, facilities, and programs to address those challenges. Additionally, the National Science and Technology Council issued the National Space Weather Action Plan (NSWAP) that detailed tasks for federal agencies in HPD's governing documents to mitigate the adverse effects of space weather. Many of the recommendations and tasks outlined in these documents require NASA to partner with other federal agencies.

In this audit, we assessed NASA's management of its heliophysics portfolio, including to what extent the Agency (1) had an effective strategy for maintaining its heliophysics science capabilities; (2) was controlling costs for its current and planned missions; (3) had implemented appropriate recommendations and action plans; and (4) was effectively coordinating heliophysics activities across federal agencies and the private sector. In meeting these objectives, we interviewed HPD officials and external stakeholders, surveyed HPD project managers, and reviewed and analyzed relevant reports and NASA guidance.


HPD has developed a comprehensive strategy that has enabled the Division to successfully manage NASA's heliophysics science capabilities and maintain a portfolio of spacecraft that increasingly includes missions in extended operations. Specifically, HPD developed a roadmap in 2014 to address the NRC's 2013 Heliophysics Decadal Survey (2013 Decadal) recommendations and leverage the Division's current assets in order to maximize the Agency's science return. However, this roadmap has not been updated to account for changes in HPD's portfolio and subsequent years' budgets. HPD has also implemented a Senior Review process that effectively evaluates HPD missions in extended operation and makes recommendations to maximize NASA's return on investment. Finally, HPD conducts weekly, monthly, and yearly assessments to evaluate the health and viability of the Division's spacecraft and instruments to ensure they meet science program goals.

In spite of the advanced age of its spacecraft fleet, NASA is generally controlling costs for all of its HPD missions in operation. Specifically, HPD's missions in extended operations expended more than $1 million less than budgeted in FYs 2016 and 2017, while both the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) and Parker Solar Probe missions recently launched on schedule and within budget.

However, HPD's remaining three missions in implementation—Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), Solar Orbiter Collaboration (SOC), and Space Environment Testbeds (SET)—have missed their planned launch dates. Although ICON and SOC remain within their Agency Baseline Commitment costs, collectively, these three missions have incurred almost $41 million in cost growth. Further, the SOC mission did not conduct a Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) analysis and ICON did not include its launch vehicle in its JCL analysis. A JCL analysis is required for all missions exceeding $250 million and is used to help predict the likelihood that a project will achieve its objectives within budget and on time. Performing a JCL analysis for the SOC mission and including ICON's launch vehicle in its JCL analysis could have provided decision makers better information upon which to base their schedule and budget estimates.

NASA has not completed 19 of its assigned NSWAP tasks, and through no fault of its own, 1 recommendation from the 2003 Heliophysics Decadal Survey (2003 Decadal) remains outstanding. NASA also has six open recommendations from the 2013 Decadal. With regard to NSWAP tasks, NASA officials stated that implementation delays for these 19 tasks occurred because of their complexity and a shortage of NASA and partner agency subject matter expertise. Additionally, the 2003 Decadal recommendation is not completed because of SOC launch delays and the 2013 Decadal recommendations remain open mainly due to budgetary concerns, technological availabilities, and complexity issues. Delays in implementing the NSWAP and decadal survey recommendations could hinder the federal government's efforts to predict and respond to space weather events and limit NASA's ability to develop future heliophysics missions.

Although NASA has established a successful working relationship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Agency could more effectively collaborate with the Department of Defense (DOD) and the commercial space industry. Specifically, despite conducting similar space-weather-related work, the U.S. Air Force is not actively engaged in NASA's efforts to improve space weather forecasting and therefore is not currently pooling resources with NASA to improve these capabilities. Additionally, a commercial space industry representative noted a lack of established avenues for private industry to convey their heliophysics capabilities to NASA.


To improve NASA's management of its heliophysics portfolio, we recommended the Associate Administrator for Science direct the HPD Director to (1) require that all JCL analyses include all discrete development risks including important risks managed outside of the project—such as a project's launch vehicle—with potential cost and/or schedule impacts; (2) complete implementation of NSWAP tasks; (3) reassess HPD's capabilities and resources and update its roadmap for implementing 2013 Decadal recommendations with expected completion dates based on the Division's updated budget and priorities over the next 5 years; and (4) establish a formal mechanism to increase collaboration with DOD and the commercial space industry regarding heliophysics research and space weather modeling and forecasting efforts.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred or partially concurred with our recommendations and described planned actions to address them. We consider the proposed actions responsive to our recommendations and will close the recommendations upon verification and completion of the proposed actions.

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