02. Of the Ordering of Programs and Projects

In a traditional sense, NASA does adhere to the format that projects are well defined objectives with a pre-determined completion date and that programs are groupings of such projects. So where does NASA differ? Well, that would be how they structure programs and categorize projects based upon scientific and technological depth and requirements.

Program Structure

Created in response to the various Mission Directorates, programs are long-term collections of projects with goals of scientific or exploratory virtue. Traditionally, programs are administered to various NASA Centers via senior NASA management, where they are directed via the appropriate Mission Directorate. Due to the vast technological and scientific expanse that NASA is involved in there’s four distinct ways that a program is conducted:

Single-Project Program – A program/project of large investment and long operational timeline that multiple departments and organizations may contribute to, that also may combine both program and project implementation and management approaches. An example being the Hubble Space Telescope, which is still operational after 25 years.

Uncouple Program – Multiple projects that all operate independently, but are under a common scientific theme dictated by the program. An example of this would be the Discovery Program, whose theme is to build, launch, and operate low-cost satellites to explore the solar system, such as Voyager 1.

Loosely Coupled Program – Projects that address specific objectives of a given mission, but keep technological and architecture synergies in mind that may provide use to the program as a whole, and in turn build into project requirements as necessary. This is typically determined during the Formulation process of the Program. The Mars Exploration Program is a great example in that each rover or orbiter launched is required to be able to communicate with past and future crafts.

Tightly Couple Program – A range of projects that are completing specific portions of a mission(s), but will not execute the entire mission. These projects can be done through various Centers as well as domestic or international partners. An example of this would be the Constellation Program, which had goals of completing the International Space Station, returning to the Moon, and landing on the moon, of which various Centers would have a hand in either development, execution, or operations.

Project Categorization

Due to the nature of space travel and technology there’s an incredibly broad and complex set of variables that a project is measured against to designate its category. It is within these categories that NASA is able to set expectations for project managers on the level of oversight and overall requirements.

The FIRST variable to determine is the project life-cycle cost (LCC) and whether the project involves human space flight and/or includes significant radioactive material. Of which the latter two would automatically place the project into Category 1. The LCC will be a cost estimate of phases A through F  including Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) Level 2 elements – both to be measured in real-time dollars.

The SECOND is based upon priority level derived from the importance of a project to the Agency, the need for international or governmental partnerships, usage of untested space technologies, and spacecraft/payload risk classification.

NASA Project Categorization

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**  Any LCC over $250M requires specific OMB program/project management certification* LCC = Life-Cycle Cost
***or contains significant radioactive material or involves human space flight

The Mission Directorate Associate Administrator can provide recommendations on the categorization of a project based on other risk factors, while the NASA Associate Administrator gives final approval on a project. In addition, any project defined as Category 1 is assigned to a Center in agreement with the NASA AA. Outside of this requirement the remaining projects are either assigned directly to a Center as via the MDAA with guidance from a strategy process or are placed into a competitive process called Announcement of Opportunity. It should be noted that the respective program manager can recommend project assignments to the MDAA.

Mission Directorate

Program/Project Managers in large corporations or agencies may be familiar with the Portfolio classification, which is a grouping of Programs. NASA does not use this exact verbiage, but has what’s called Mission Directorates, with the major difference being these are defined based on national priorities handed down through the Agencies Strategic Plan. There are four primary directorates: Aeronautics Research, Human Exploration and Operations, Science, and Space Technology. With an additional directorate referred to as the Mission Support Directorate that encompasses administrative and institutional support in an effort to enable the success of the primary directorates.