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NASA's VIPER Lunar Rover on Schedule for Late 2023 Launch – Parabolic Arc – Parabolic Arc

Parabolic Arc
All Space All the Time
by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) that will search for valuable water ice at the lunar south pole is running on schedule for a launch late next year, according to a review from the space agency’s Office of Inspector General (IG).
“The VIPER mission continues to progress toward its planned November 2023 launch, passing multiple life-cycle reviews while spending less money than expected and maintaining planned schedule reserves,” the document said. “All four science instruments were also on schedule for delivery to Johnson Space Center by May 2022 for integration and testing with the rover, while Astrobotic officials said development of its Griffin Lander—which will ferry VIPER from a commercial launch vehicle to the Moon and deploy a ramp for the rover to roll onto the lunar surface—remains on track to meet the current launch timetable.”
NASA is paying Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology to launch and deliver the rover to the surface of the moon using the company’s Griffith Lander under the space agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
VIPER’s total mission cost of $669.1 million includes $433.5 million for development of the rover and science instruments, lunar operations and cost reserves. While NASA is spending less money than anticipated on its side of the mission, the cost of Astrobotic’s services have increased to $235.1 million.
“Because VIPER is significantly higher in cost and criticality with lower risk tolerance than the other missions currently
awarded CLPS task orders, [Science Mission Directorate] instituted additional requirements on the Astrobotic task order to help ensure the VIPER mission succeeds,” the report said. “These additional requirements have contributed to the increase in the cost of the task order, which has risen by $36.1 million or 18.1 percent from the task order’s original $199.5 million cost established in 2020.”
Additional modifications to Astrobotic’s contract are possible the company and NASA complete designs and finalize requirements for the lander and rover, respectively, the report said.
Water ice that can be used as drinking water and processed into propellant is seen as crucial to NASA’s plan to explore and establish a crewed base on the moon. The space agency plans to land two astronauts at the lunar south pole no earlier than 2025.
The IG report made four recommendations to improve its management of the VIPER mission and the CLPS program. NASA agreement with the following two recommendations:
NASA did not agree with recommendations that it implement Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) analysis and Earned Value Management (EVM) project oversight tools for projects and programs costing more than $250 million. The space agency chose not to implement these requirements for VIPER.
NASA “instead described a process whereby the respective Decision Authority would be advised by the newly established Office of the Chief Program Management Officer as to whether a new development project should follow requirements of NPR 7120.5 or NPR 7120.8 as well as the applicability of JCL and EVM by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer,” the IG report said. “While we find this proposal somewhat promising, these recommendations remain unresolved pending further discussion with the Agency regarding implementation details.”
The report’s Findings in Brief and Recommendations sections are reproduced below.
NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) Mission
NASA Office of Inspector General
April 7, 2021
Results in Brief
Why We Performed This Audit
NASA seeks to achieve a long-term sustainable presence on the Moon as part of its Artemis program. As a precursor to returning humans to the Moon, the Agency is developing new science instruments, systems, and capabilities in collaboration with commercial and international partners. One such project is a mobile robot or rover known as the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) which will survey the Moon’s South Pole and its concentration of water ice. Water on the Moon (in the form of water ice) may provide humans not just liquid to drink, but also when broken into its component elements oxygen to breathe and hydrogen and oxygen to fuel future landers and rockets. The VIPER mission, which includes the rover, four science instruments, launch and delivery of the rover to the Moon by a commercial vendor, and lunar surface operations, will help determine whether it is practical to use the Moon’s water ice to “live off the land,” thereby reducing the need for multiple missions to ferry oxygen, food, fuel, and other supplies needed to sustain long-term human exploration on the Moon and potentially missions to Mars.
In June 2020, NASA awarded a task order to Astrobotic Technology, Inc. (Astrobotic), 1 of 14 providers on contract under the Agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), for VIPER launch and lunar delivery services. CLPS is a new initiative to encourage the U.S. commercial space industry to develop lander technologies to deliver payloads to the surface of the Moon. Under the program, NASA contracts with CLPS providers to provide end-to-end delivery of NASA instruments and spacecraft to the lunar surface, including the purchase of launch vehicle services.
In this audit, we assessed NASA’s management of the VIPER project, including development of the rover, science instruments, and lunar surface operations, relative to achieving technical objectives, meeting established milestones, and controlling costs. To complete this work, we interviewed NASA and Astrobotic personnel and reviewed risks provided by the VIPER project’s risk management system; internal and external documents related to the VIPER project; and federal and NASA criteria, policies, and procedures. We also evaluated whether the VIPER project was on track to meet its scheduled launch date, life-cycle cost estimate, and science requirements, and whether identified risks were properly considered, tracked, and mitigated in developing the baseline cost and schedule.
What We Found
The VIPER mission continues to progress toward its planned November 2023 launch, passing multiple life-cycle reviews while spending less money than expected and maintaining planned schedule reserves. All four science instruments were also on schedule for delivery to Johnson Space Center by May 2022 for integration and testing with the rover, while Astrobotic officials said development of its Griffin Lander—which will ferry VIPER from a commercial launch vehicle to the Moon and deploy a ramp for the rover to roll onto the lunar surface—remains on track to meet the current launch timetable.
NASA modified its usual acquisition and management approaches for the CLPS initiative so Astrobotic would assume the risk of completing its portion of the overall mission, own and control lander designs, and choose the launch provider. While this creates opportunities to reduce cost by collaborating with commercial entities, the Agency and Astrobotic each assume significant risks with the VIPER mission, which carries higher costs, criticality, and schedule risks compared to other current CLPS task orders. Further, NASA made several modifications to Astrobotic’s task order that has increased its value by $36.1 million from the original $199.5 million cost established at the initial award in June 2020, with more modifications possible as VIPER and Griffin complete designs and finalize requirements.
Moreover, as of January 2022, NASA’s lessons learned database did not contain any records related to the CLPS initiative or the VIPER mission. Timely submission and NASA-wide sharing of lessons learned by VIPER personnel using this new acquisition model would help follow-on projects make more effective, experience-driven decisions regarding collaboration with CLPS contractors.
Additionally, NASA is required to provide Congress a Major Program Annual Report (MPAR) for programs and projects with estimated life-cycle costs exceeding $250 million that includes a detailed breakout of development cost and program or project reserves and an estimate of annual costs until development is completed. However, in March 2021 NASA established a VIPER project life-cycle cost estimate of $433.5 million that included development of the rover, science instruments, lunar operations, and applicable cost reserves but not costs for Astrobotic’s launch and delivery services, which at that time were valued at $226.5 million but has since risen by $9.1 million. A complete life-cycle cost and accurate MPAR for the VIPER mission should include the cost of Astrobotic launch and delivery services, thereby improving transparency into the full cost of the mission.
Finally, NASA leadership has promoted the benefits of Agency project oversight tools, specifically the Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) analysis that generates a statistical representation of the likelihood a project will achieve its objectives within budget and on time and Earned Value Management (EVM) that assesses project performance through the integration of technical scope with schedule and cost objectives. NASA is managing the VIPER mission in accordance with NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 7120.8 for research and technology programs and projects, which does not require a JCL or EVM. In an effort to streamline processes and because NPR 7210.8 does not require it, the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) choose not to employ either oversight tool for VIPER. We believe that this was a missed opportunity to help establish the project’s cost estimate with a comprehensive JCL and monitor project cost and schedule performance using EVM. Failing to use these tools means NASA does not have full visibility into the risks and their potential costs to the VIPER mission.
What We Recommended
To enable more experience-based decision-making when collaborating with CLPS providers, we recommended the Associate Administrator for SMD direct Planetary Science Division and VIPER project management to coordinate with the Chief Knowledge Officer to submit and at appropriate intervals publish lessons learned associated with using a CLPS provider, particularly on major acquisitions. To enable greater stakeholder transparency, we also recommended the Associate Administrator for SMD in coordination with the Chief Financial Officer develop a VIPER mission cost estimate that includes all critical mission components and risks associated with the Astrobotic task order and update the MPAR accordingly. In addition, to ensure consistency with major project development best practices, we recommended the Chief Engineer in coordination with the Chief Financial Officer and Mission Directorate Associate Administrators update NPR 7120.8 to require major acquisition projects that cost over $250 million to complete a JCL analysis and implement EVM.
We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with our recommendation to publish lessons learned and partially concurred with our recommendation to develop a comprehensive VIPER mission cost estimate and and update the MPAR. The respective planned actions address our concerns; therefore, these recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions. Management did not concur with our recommendations to update NPR 7120.8 and these two recommendations are unresolved pending further discussion with the Agency.
Recommendations, Management’s Response, and Our Evaluation
To enable more experience-based decision-making when collaborating with CLPS providers, we recommended NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate direct Planetary Science Division and VIPER project management to:
1. Coordinate with the Chief Knowledge Officer to submit and at appropriate intervals document and publish lessons learned associated with using a CLPS provider, particularly on major acquisitions.
In addition, to enable greater stakeholder transparency we recommended NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate in coordination with the Chief Financial Officer:
2. Develop a VIPER mission cost estimate that includes all critical mission components and risks, specifically associated with the Astrobotic task order, and update the MPAR accordingly.
To ensure consistency with major project development best practices, we also recommended NASA’s Chief Engineer in coordination with the Agency’s Chief Financial Officer and Mission Directorate Associate Administrators:
3. Update NPR 7120.8 to require major acquisition projects that cost over $250 million to complete a JCL analysis.
4. Update NPR 7120.8 to require major acquisition projects that cost over $250 million to implement EVM. We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred and partially concurred with Recommendations 1 and 2, respectively, and described planned actions to address them. We consider management’s comments responsive; therefore, these recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions.
Management did not concur with Recommendations 3 and 4 to update NPR 7120.8, but instead described a process whereby the respective Decision Authority would be advised by the newly established Office of the Chief Program Management Officer as to whether a new development project should follow requirements of NPR 7120.5 or NPR 7120.8 as well as the applicability of JCL and EVM by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. While we find this proposal somewhat promising, these recommendations remain unresolved pending further discussion with the Agency regarding implementation details.

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