Delays to NASA's in-orbit satellite refueling robot to push costs over $2B target
Contractor blamed by watchdog for late SPIDER arm work
A NASA plan to robotically repair and refuel satellites in orbit is way behind schedule and well over budget, says NASA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), with most of the blame falling on space tech contractor Maxar.
Maxar, one of the largest private businesses working on NASA's On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing mission (OSAM-1), has been involved in the project since 2016, when the space agency's idea was smaller in scope and known as Restore-L. According to the OIG, Maxar is two years behind schedule on delivering the the project's spacecraft bus and its Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER) robotic arm, and it's unlikely OSAM-1 will come in under its $2.05 billion budget nor meet the December 2026 launch date NASA committed to in 2022.
The bus is the main craft framework, and its attached SPIDER will hopefully repair and refuel satellites in orbit, once it all gets off the ground and works.
NASA isn't without blame for the delays, the OIG said, but Goddard Space Flight Center's (the NASA facility where the project is being managed) "struggle with development of several key components of the servicing payload" wasn't the main issue.
"We found that project cost increases and schedule delays were primarily due to the poor performance of Maxar … and its inability to provide the spacecraft bus and SPIDER in accordance with contract requirements," inspectors concluded in their report.
Restore-L's original mission was to refuel Landsat 7, an Earth observation satellite launched by NASA in 1999 and operated by the US Geological Survey (USGS). Landsat 7's fuel ran out in 2011, and it was decommissioned and replaced with Landsat 9, launched in 2021. After being moved to a lower orbit, Landsat 7 was brought back online last year to make additional observations from its position closer to Earth.
Along with refueling Landsat 7, OSAM-1's expanded mission would see it use SPIDER and other equipment to assemble a new communications antenna for the satellite and demonstrate in-space manufacturing of a 32-foot carbon fiber beam - technology that will be essential in building future orbital structures.
"If successful, OSAM-1 may give satellite operators new ways to manage their aging fleets," the OIG said. "NASA intends to transfer OSAM-1 technologies to commercial entities to help jumpstart a new domestic servicing industry that could be worth over $5 billion by 2030."
Seven years delayed
NASA was forced to reschedule OSAM-1 in April 2022 after the agency realized it had exceeded the project's development costs and would be unable to launch in 2025 - the second delivery date set after the addition of SPIDER and expansion of the mission's scope in 2020. This added $270 million to OSAM-1's budget, bringing the total cost to over $2 billion, and pushed the launch date to late 2026, but that deadline looks likely to come and go, too.
"Maxar significantly underestimated the scope and complexity of the work involved in tailoring a commercial spacecraft bus to meet NASA standards and OSAM-1 mission requirements," the OIG said.
Maxar has reportedly poorly prioritized the project and not provided enough technical expertise to keep it on track. That has forced NASA to provide its own labor and services to supplement Maxar's efforts, amounting to some $2 million worth of the agency's worker time, but that still hasn't been enough to get the project back on track.
Unfortunately for NASA, these delays are even more costly because USGS has made NASA foot the bill for Landsat 7's operation since it was brought back online last year. "Any OSAM-1 project launch delays beyond the February 2026 launch date would require the Agency to provide additional funds to USGS at a rate of approximately $482,000 per month," the OIG said.
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"With the projected Launch Readiness Date now no earlier than March 2027, NASA will likely incur at least $6.3 million in additional costs to continue Landsat 7 operations," the OIG concluded, though NASA tells us it's still working toward a 2026 launch date and plans to reevaluate its schedule in February 2024.
"The spacecraft [bus] recently arrived at Goddard Space Flight Center to begin integration and testing," NASA spokesperson Jimi Russell told The Register. "While spacecraft integration is happening, other parts of the project are coming together but some schedule delays are possible due to remaining technical challenges."
Maxar, for its part, tells us that it's proud to be part of OSAM-1 and is committed to working with NASA to make the project a success. Despite that, Maxar said it was disappointed that the OIG's report "does not contain key facts and important context," though what that context is isn't exactly clear.
"We are conducting a thorough review of the report and look forward to engaging constructively with NASA regarding the report's conclusions," Maxar told The Register.
The OIG's recommendations to NASA were threefold, two of which were directed at the OSAM-1 project itself. It needs to recoup the cost of labor and services provided to Maxar, and any such work should be integrated into the contract instead of being tracked separately, as has been the case.
For NASA's procurement office, the OIG had a different recommendation that it said plays directly into the problems at the heart of its contracts. The deals were fixed firm price (FFP) arrangments, with no incentives for Maxar to get its work done on time. Such incentives are necessary, the OIG said, and should be added to FFP NASA contracts going forward. Russell told us NASA has already taken action on two of the three OIG recommendations.
NASA further tells us it has been in "increasing communication" with Maxar over the project delays in the past two years, and told us that it's already integrated milestone deliverables and specific statements of work into contracts the pair have signed for integration and testing. That said, the Agency still seems to be a bit frustrated with its need for remedial treatment of a contractor.
"NASA will endeavor to be as specific and clear as possible when defining Maxar’s work under each of these line items to ensure expectations are met," we're told. ®