NASA’s greatest challenges in 2014

NASA’s Inspector General looks at ISS, heavy lift rocket and crew capsule issues, among other things

nasa ISS
In its annual look at what challenges NASA faces in the coming year, the agency's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) this year outlined nine key areas it says will cause the most angina.

Leading the way in pain is money.  NASA's current money story starts off bad and just gets worse. 

"Along with the rest of the Federal Government, NASA began FY 2013 under a 6-month continuing resolution that funded the Agency at FY 2012 levels. This was followed by a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year that reduced the Agency's enacted funding level of $17. 5 billion by $626.5 million, or approximately 4% due to sequestration.

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These financial pressures look to repeat themselves in FY 2014, with no annual budget in place at the beginning of the fiscal year and potential sequestration impacts that could reduce NASA's budget request of $17.7 billion by $1.5 billion to $16.2 billion. As the National Research Council noted in its 2012 report examining NASA's strategic direction and management, NASA's budget is 'mismatched to the current portfolio of missions, facilities, and staff,'" the OIG report stated.

But while the budget situation likely won't get any better, a few of the main challenges for 2014 will revolve around other money decisions.

The one that will likely get the most attention (and is ranked highest in the OIG report) is whether or not to improve and fund the International Space Station beyond 2020 to 2028.

"The ISS currently costs approximately $3 billion a year to operate. Extending the Station beyond 2020 would likely require NASA to invest additional funds to service the structure and update its equipment.  Consequently, some space policy experts have expressed concern that NASA will not have enough money to make the required upgrades and operate the Station while concurrently developing the Agency's other human exploration programs, including the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).At the same time, NASA needs to gauge the interest and ability of its international partners to assist in extending ISS operations another 8 years," the OIG report states.

The development of the heavy lift rocket known as SLS is also a big challenge, the OIG says.   In April 2013, NASA announced plans for a mission to identify, capture, and relocate an asteroid while emphasizing that Mars is its ultimate destination for beyond low Earth orbit human exploration. However, some members of  Congress advocate landing on the Moon as a precursor to a Mars mission. Whatever the destination, successful development of NASA's new "heavy lift" rocket -the SLS-and accompanying MPCV capsule are critical to the overall success of NASA's current human exploration goals, the OIG states.

From the OIG report: The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 set a goal for NASA to achieve operational capability for the SLS and MPCV by December 31, 2016. NASA has reported that it will not meet this timetable and instead plans to launch an uncrewed test flight of the SLS and MPCV in 2017 followed by a  crewed flight in 2021. NASA's challenge in this area will be to concurrently develop a launch system and crew vehicle and modify the necessary supporting ground systems while meeting the Administrator's mandate that exploration systems be affordable, sustainable, and realistic. For example, integrating hardware and supporting equipment from other programs, specifically the Space Shuttle and Constellation, may prove challenging since each piece of equipment was designed and tested for a different launch vehicle, the OIG stated.

Looming over the daunting technical and schedule challenges for NASA's human exploration program is a foreboding budget scenario. For example, the MPCV Program anticipates receiving a flat budget of approximately $1 billion per year into the 2020s. Given this budget profile, NASA is using an incremental development approach under which it allocates funding to the most critical systems necessary to achieve the next development milestone rather than developing multiple systems simultaneously as is common in major spacecraft programs, the OIG stated.

"Although we believe MPCV Program officials are managing the Program as efficiently as they can within their constrained budget, we are concerned about the future of the Program given the risks associated with incremental development Given the time and money necessary to develop landers and associated system it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct any manned surface exploration missions until the late 2020s at the earliest," the OIG report stated.

The other main NASA concerns listed in the OIG report briefly include:

- Maintaining Cost and Schedule for the James Webb Space Telescope

- Ensuring Continued Efficacy of the Space Communications Networks 

- Overhauling NASA's Information Technology Governance Structure

- Ensuring the Security of NASA's Information Technology Systems 

- Managing NASA's Infrastructure and Facilities

- Ensuring the Integrity of the Contracting and Grants Processes

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