Findings & Concerns

Combined Findings from SRWG Meetings:
Meeting of December 7, 2000 and June 15, 2001
Sounding Rocket Working Group
National Aeronautics and Space Administration


The Sounding Rocket Working Group has followed the progress of the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract (NSROC) since its inception.  In the course of events over the last 6 years, it has provided advice and input for numerous panels that studied and eventually created NSROC, thereby helping to establish guidelines for the formation of the privately-owned and managed program that succeeded the NASA-managed sounding rocket program that had been in place for the 40 years since the creation of the agency.

When the initial ideas of a Government-owned/Contractor-operated (GOCO) system to take over NASA’s sounding rocket program were first suggested, they were met with skepticism by the SRWG as well as the user (science) community in general, as discussed, for example, in the SRWG findings from its December 11, 1996 meeting.  (The GOCO idea was eventually succeeded with the Performance Based Contract that is the current system in place today.)  Despite our strong reservations, the SRWG affirmed its dedication to preserving the rocket program and thus provided support for the new operating system selected by NASA management.  We expressed our commitment to being proactive and to helping the NSROC implementation in findings from the SRWG meetings of June 24, 1998 and December 16, 1998.

In a review of the proposed new operating system in 1996, the SRWG cited several areas that they felt were important to maintain a viable and scientifically efficacious sounding rocket program for the nation. These included:  keeping costs contained while maintaining the flight rates of 30 flights/year, preserving flexibility and innovation, and maintaining the remote campaign capability.  Regarding the contract that was being written at the time, the SRWG noted the importance of the “escape valve” that was promised by NASA management as an opportunity to make changes  --  including both large scale and smaller course corrections  --  after the initial phase of the transition to the new system was complete, in order to ensure that the unique capabilities of NASA’s sounding rocket program were preserved.  [See SRWG Finding #2 of December 1996].

At the present time, the NSROC has been in place for about 2 years and its implementation is currently being reviewed by NASA.  Principal Investigator (customer) input is required for this review, as stated in the contract requirements (H.22, page 54).  Indeed, input has been provided by individual scientists (Drs. R. Arnoldy, J. Clemmons, C. Korendyke, K. Lynch, K. Nordsieck, and R. Pfaff) at the NSROC Transition Review Committee meeting on November 16/17, 2000.  Furthermore, the SRWG heard presentations from this review committee at both its December, 2000 and June, 2001 meetings for which comments and discussion were provided.

To summarize the user input represented by the SRWG, we present this finding which discusses not only the performance and implementation of NSROC but also the impact of the new management arrangement to the sounding rocket program in general.  We anticipate that other user input may also be provided separately.


The current NSROC organization (Litton/PRC) has put together a highly capable blend of managers, engineers, and technicians.  They know how to design, build, test, and launch sounding rocket payloads.  This retention of the basic sounding rocket technical capabilities is a relief to the scientific community and for this we offer our commendation. 

Having said this, the SRWG notes with concern the somewhat larger than usual percentage of failures (4 out of 16) in FY00 as well as two serious anomalies thus far in FY01, all of which have occurred during the first two years for which the program has been carried out entirely under NSROC management.  Although not of adequate significance to indicate a trend, some of these failures might have resulted in indirect ways from a combination of new people as well as operation issues that may have otherwise been avoided in the previous arrangement.  The responsiveness of NSROC to each failure and anomaly has been thorough, with NSROC management not only accepting responsibility but also demonstrating a clear path to identifying and resolving the problem(s).  Thus, although the failures are a cause for concern, we do not believe they necessarily signal major problems with NSROC.

From the perspective of the user, the implementation of NSROC with respect to technical matters, has, for the most part, gone quite well.  NSROC clearly understands the business.  As anticipated, the technical aspects of the new NSROC arrangement have been enabled by the fact that Litton/PRC has (1) hired a very large number of the existing contractors at Wallops, who were already performing the vast majority (> 90%) of the non-managerial tasks in the sounding rocket program under the old arrangement, (2) assumed full use of the government-owned hardware, machine shop and test equipment, and (3) taken control of the designs and drawings of all past NASA rocket payloads that are typically used as the starting point for new projects.  Although there are some areas of technical concern, such as in the attitude control area and the contractor support at the White Sands Missile Range, in the general areas of sounding rocket technical performance, both NSROC and its implementation have succeeded well.
Skill Mix of NSROC Personnel
NSROC management was wise to capture most of the existing contractors at Wallops, many of whom had been supporting the sounding rocket program for decades, as well as hire a few civil servants who had retired during this same period.  In our view, this act alone has ensured the technical success of the program more than any other factor.  New people were also added, such as the entire upper management tier of NSROC, and they appear to have readily adjusted to the special management needs of the sounding rocket program including the unique partnerships between the PI, NASA HQ, and Wallops that must be engendered and actively managed by all parties to ensure a vibrant and effective program.

The one skill area for NSROC at Wallops that has been significantly lacking has been expertise in the attitude control area.  This is a critical area for a large number of rockets, including both fine-pointing astronomy and solar payloads as well as coarse-pointing plasma physics payloads.  Indeed, the successful operation of such ACS units are frequently required for minimum success and the importance of a strong staff of experienced personnel is essential both to implement the current capabilities as well as to prepare the next generation of ACS systems.

In a related issue, the contractor support at White Sands Missile Range for the SPARCS and other fine-pointing ACS systems is critical and there does not appear to be an agreed-upon plan to maintain or replace this capability, except with the longer range strategy of trying to develop such systems in house.  The SRWG is aware that NSROC is working on this issue and looks forward to learning their plans to remedy this situation.

Innovation and Responsiveness

Through both presentations at SRWG meetings and the actual implementation of new ideas, NSROC has demonstrated to the users its commitment to developing new technology and to innovation in general.  To this end, it has indicated that it will pursue such ideas as new ACS systems, a replacement attitude system for the antiquated gyros in use for over 30 years, new ideas in telemetry, as well as rely more heavily on GPS for positional data.  Although we are not aware of the costs involved in their investments in new technology and the future, the users are obviously strongly in favor of NSROC’s position in regard to fostering new technology.

Despite our enthusiasm for the new approach, there is a need to understand where the funds come from and how the decisions are made for the new technology initiatives that are supported with funds that originate from NASA.  Clearly, there may be conflicts between investing in technology that can be marketed by NSROC (e.g., new ACS systems) versus technology that is needed for science initiatives without any other apparent payoffs (e.g., DARTS).

NSROC has consistently demonstrated that it is forward looking and that they are considering the long term.  They have taken the initiative to do this.  The SRWG not only applauds this approach but also looks forward to working with NSROC and the SRPO to chart a course for the future that identifies the highest priorities for new technology with respect to anticipated new science thrusts.

Operations and Management

In general, field operations have not gone smoothly since NSROC was initiated.  This has apparently been due to a variety of reasons, for which the breakdown of the traditional centralized management of the program is at the core.  The main problem from our perspective appears to be a disconnect between NSROC and the Sounding Rocket Project Office (SRPO) in terms of resolving problems or adjusting to unexpected changes during the course of launch operations.  For a given mission, there remain a number of decisions that can only be made by the SRPO as they involve NASA contracts with the range, international matters, safety concerns, or operations support from CSOC.  For example, acceptable launch corridors might need to be changed and/or re-negotiated real-time, which directly affects the ability to launch the rocket, which is the responsibility of NSROC and determines their fee.

With regard to CSOC (which provides operational support for sounding rocket launches), advance input concerning available telemetry support and other matters are generally needed before a design can be completed.  In many cases, it affects science and experiment design decisions.  As NSROC has no control of CSOC which must interface directly with NASA, NSROC is often handcuffed from proceeding without CSOC decisions.  For example, it is difficult to design a payload to be launched at a foreign site (e.g., Spitzbergen) without timely input on the telemetry systems that will be available.  In most cases, NSROC must rely on the SRPO to interact with CSOC to discuss and gather the necessary input.

To a larger extent the operational problems encountered appear to stem from the fact that it is unclear who is actually in charge  --  SRPO?  NSROC?,  the P.I.?,  Range Management?  Safety?  In most cases, the SRPO ultimately must resolve range problems, but they are understaffed and it is difficult to actively support every launch particularly when unforeseen difficulties arise.  The problems are exacerbated since the Mission Managers are NSROC employees who do not report to the SRPO but must bring problems to their attention and rely on them to resolve problems.  Under the new rules, SRPO can not tell NSROC how to deal with their end of the problems and the resulting situation may be quite frustrating.

Another area is that of international launches, that include a whole host of additional concerns involving range details that can only be worked by the SRPO.  NSROC has not yet supported a remote sounding rocket campaign, but we anticipate that this would present a new series of tests for NSROC in the operational arena that would probably be dealt with more efficiently under the old arrangement that was based on a centralized management approach for the entire program.

To conclude, operations represents a major area where the program does not appear to be as well off as a result of the switch to the new system, primarily because it is more cumbersome to resolve real-time problems under the new arrangement in which the NSROC and SRPO management teams are divided.


NSROC, by the very nature of its contract, is more expensive than the previous, “level of effort” contract managed by NASA that was used previously to carry out the work.  The promise of lower costs to the sounding rocket project under NSROC has not materialized.  There remains the possibility that marketing initiatives may eventually bring costs down to a level below what the program cost previously, as was originally envisioned by the planners, although to our knowledge evidence has not been shown that this is likely to occur in the near term, if at all.  The fact that the past approach included civil servant manpower can only account for a limited portion of the large cost of the program today, since the vast majority of the work was still performed by contractors.  Although the large NSROC costs are not a surprise, since the hallmark of NASA’s “can-do” sounding rocket program has traditionally been low cost, efficiency, and innovation, the SRWG believes that certain aspects of the financial arrangements with NSROC should be re-evaluated, particularly as the program has recently undergone a general funding crisis at NASA HQ.

The chief reasons why one expects NSROC to be more expensive is that fees (profit) must now be paid on all costs as well as larger overhead costs.  Furthermore, since NSROC is now procuring hardware, including costly rocket motors, they are charging overhead fees on these purchases which were not previously paid when the government procured them.  Furthermore, sub-contractors have little incentive to lower prices, knowing that their costs will just be passed along via NSROC to NASA.

Another reason why we suspect NSROC is more expensive is that due to the costing model itself.  Under the new arrangement, NSROC establishes "price tags" on individual rocket projects including estimates of labor which invariably must include contingencies since project testing and time in the field may vary considerably due to unforeseen experimenter variables.  We wonder whether such agreed-upon price tags practically guarantees that the actual costs will be close to these values.  (To this end, it would be useful to see a list of anticipated versus actual costs for the missions completed thus far by NSROC.)  Although there are financial incentives for NSROC to save money on individual missions, these appear to be minimal.  Various P.I.s have informed the SRWG of instances where NSROC seemed quite eager to “spend money” and do extra testing that did not appear to them to be necessary.  Although from our vantage point we can not judge the merits of such expenditures, we can say that we know of no case thus far of significant savings or incentive fees that rewarded NSROC for completing any mission thus far well under its expected cost. 

The SRWG admits that it does not have the insight into NSROC’s financial picture to comment as effectively as it might wish on program costs, but it appears to us that the new structure and profit incentive of NSROC runs counter to doing the job for the least amount of money.  Furthermore, in the past year, the sounding rocket project for the first time in its history had to delay approved payloads because of a lack of funds, and this occurred in a year where the total number of rocket launches was already well below the average.  Although the reasons for the shortfall are not directly due to NSROC, in our view the project should be doing everything possible to save money and have the most efficient program as possible.  The NSROC Transition Review committee might thus consider significant changes to the model to restore some of the fiscal advantages that the program enjoyed in prior years.  (See comments on the appropriateness of the model and other suggestions below.)

Principal Investigator (Customer) involvement in the NSROC managed process

The SRWG feels it is appropriate to comment on the role of the Principal Investigator in the new NSROC arrangement, with particular emphasis on how the new management scheme is affecting science.  We limit our comments to three areas:

Experiment design, innovation, and paperwork.  For many missions, the scientific instruments are not "off-the-shelf" experiments.  A large amount of detailed design, head scratching, and creativity takes place after the Requirements Definition Meeting (RDM), although prior to the Design Review.  The RDM is a new meeting required by NSROC for pricing purposes that must take place within 45 days of the Mission Initiation Conference (MIC).  Payloads are frequently designed as a team effort between the experimenter and Wallops, particularly as innovative designs are implemented.  In other cases, the experimenter designs and builds a large portion of the payload at his/her laboratory or university.  Although such arrangements are still possible under NSROC, the P.I. now experiences pressure to have preliminary design work completed prior to the RDM which works for many projects but stifles innovation in others.

The RDM requires non-trivial resources from both NSROC and P.I.’s (i.e., personnel, time, travel, paperwork).  This can be difficult for experimenters that have only been funded for a brief period prior to the RDM, if at all.  Further, NSROC requests requirements significantly ahead of the meeting so it can do the paperwork and prepare the RDM packages.  In sum, the RDM adds bureaucratic requirements for the experimenter that the program previously did not have.

Irrespective of the additional paperwork, the chief concern of the SRWG is that there is now subtle pressure to discourage innovative science payloads that require teamwork between Wallops engineers and the experimenter with long development times (e.g., DART project with Utah State University) that extend well beyond the RDM.  As a result, the SRWG fears that the great experimental possibilities inherent in the shining jewel of NASA’s crown that is the Sounding Rocket Program, may come down a notch.

Success Criteria.  The SRWG is concerned that Principal Investigators have been pressured to water down their success criteria to ensure maximum fees for NSROC.  This subject has been discussed at length at a number of SRWG meetings.  In fact, the SRWG issued a lengthy finding on this subject after its meeting of June 9, 2000 which described the problem and gave examples.  Although NSROC has indicated that it is not their intention that the scientist compromise minimum success criteria for the sake of facilitating a business arrangement, since clearly it is now in their interest to “negotiate” minimum success criteria such that cost and risk are minimized, there is again pressure for the experimenters to compromise their expectations.  Some P.I.’s have emphatically insisted that allowing failure in the program on the experiment side is important since this means that new experiments are being tested, etc.  However, the possibility for this does not seem to be encouraged under the new system.

P.I. involvement in NSROC costing.  The SRWG is confused over who has responsibility for the cost of the mission.  (A finding was issued on this after the SRWG meeting of June 9, 2000.)  If the P.I. is to be the steward of the funds, as in NASA’s SMEX and MIDEX programs, then he/she must be involved in the financial dealings, including knowledge of NSROC fees, prices of sub-systems, overtime decisions, field work, etc.  It appears that the P.I. could be made aware in a general sense of big ticket items that are being considered for the payload, but may be shielded from the nuts and bolts of the financial details.  However, if the P.I. is to be responsible for the overall costs, the details must be made available to him/her.

There appears to be a fundamental problem with cost feedback.  It is in the P.I.’s interest to request more support for a given mission and in NSROC’s interest to add them and to bill NASA accordingly, since P.I. satisfaction is a large part of the NSROC award fee.  For example, there is little incentive for overtime not to be authorized for additional testing, etc.  We note that such relationships differ considerably depending on the P.I. and his/her experience.  However, in the past, the SRPO clearly laid down the law when it came to living within the program limits, judiciously regulating overtime, etc., and this clear chain of authority seemed to help rein in costs and keep things on track.

Appropriateness of Model

Although the SRWG does not purport to have worked out a detailed alternative model, we comment here on the appropriateness of the model being used in the new contract arrangement.  Since the purpose of the current review is to instigate course corrections, we provide comments on those elements of the new program model that make sense and other obvious elements that we believe should be changed.  Given that both the old and the new paradigm offer clear advantages, perhaps a new arrangement can be worked out that provides the best of both worlds.

A new model paradigm that the SRWG asks be considered is as follows:  NASA’s sounding rocket program would still be operated by one contractor (NSROC) that has responsibility for designing and building payloads for the rocket investigations selected by NASA HQ.  Further, they have the sole right to “market” Wallops, bringing in business and directly profiting from these activities.  However, with regards to the science rocket payloads, instead of providing detailed “bids” on individual missions, NSROC would provide contractor support for a suite of missions instead, defined by whatever payloads are selected by NASA HQ in a given year.  In this arrangement, there would be no formal RDM for each mission, although a good estimate of the cost of each mission could still be provided to NASA HQ so they would be aware of the approximate cost of each selected investigation.  Instead of working towards the overall price tag established at the RDM, the contractor simply bills for those hours spent on a specific payload, with award fees available annually depending on the overall success of the mission suite.  Procurement is returned to the NASA side of the house to save costs with NSROC able to buy at cost NASA-specific hardware (e.g., rocket motors) that it needs for any non-NASA sounding rocket (or other) mission that it brings in via its own marketing efforts.  Project management of the NASA (i.e., science) sounding rocket payloads (payloads and operations) would be returned to the SRPO (although mission managers may still be NSROC employees.)  NSROC would entirely manage the missions it brings in via its marketing or other initiatives.

In our view, a new arrangement such as that proposed above provides much more efficient use of everyone’s time.  It provides significant savings to the program, which are particularly needed now and in the foreseeable future given the tight fiscal situation in which the program is currently.  The sole NSROC contractor still benefits from the considerable marketing potential of the Wallops Flight Facility.  The centralized management approach brings together the several critical elements of the program  --  payload design and testing, operations, range telemetry and radar support (CSOC), and safety  --  all of which must be dealt with together to ensure a well-working and successful program.  Finally, the Principal Investigator (customer) will no longer feel the pressure that the science is subordinate to the business world.  Rather, the new model underscores the fact that efficient, high quality, cutting edge science remains at the forefront of NASA’s sounding rocket program.


Main Strengths:

NSROC is very competent and responsive to experimenter needs.  It includes a first rate cadre of engineers and technicians that know how to “get the job done” .  The new arrangement allows for marketing of Wallops which potentially has lucrative payoffs, particularly with DoD.


Main Weaknesses:

The current contract approach results in an expensive program which has not saved the program any money.  The profit incentive of NSROC does not support the general philosophy of providing an ultra-streamlined operation that designs, builds, and launches the maximum number of high quality payloads for the least amount of money.  The lack of a centralized management approach hurts the program and provides for a number of critical disconnects between the payload team, operations, range support, and safety.  The scientists are concerned that the program is increasingly conservative, which could limit their innovation and high-risk development efforts, which in turn, limits their capabilities to test new instruments and make important new scientific discoveries.

Recommendations for Consideration

--  Strengthen the NASA Program Office management role of NSROC. 


--  Perform all procurements (in particular of sounding rocket motors) on the government side.

--  Eliminate the formal RDM and detailed price quote for each mission. 

--  Implement a plan where NSROC bills for hours spent on a given project, without bidding each rocket individually.  Provide fees to NSROC for overall performance, not on a mission-by-mission basis.

--  Instigate a centralized management approach whereby payload design, operations, range telemetry and radar support (CSOC), and safety are all managed as a team.

--  Encourage new business ventures for NSROC to make optimum use of Wallops Facility which they will manage.


NASA Sounding Rocket Working Group

Dr. Robert F. Pfaff, Jr. (Chair)
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Dr. James Clemmons
Aerospace Corporation

Dr. Joseph Davila
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Dr. Greg Delory
University of California at Berkeley

Dr. Kristina Lynch
University of New Hampshire

Dr. Stephan McCandliss
Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Scott Porter
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Dr. David Slater
Southwest Research Institute

Dr. James Ulwick
Utah State University

Dr. Erik Wilkinson
University of Colorado