NASA may transform but major problems remain

NASA needs to overcome key business issues, GAO report finds

In announcing its 2011 budget this week, the government proposed making some sweeping changes to NASA.  But no matter how radical any NASA shift might be, the space agency needs to address some common, and long-standing challenges if it expects to truly move toward the future. 

That was the over-arching message delivered in a Government Accountability Office report released today that said among other things, that while the space agency faces radical changes,  one thing that will most likely remain constant is NASA's need to manage programs and projects with far less money. 

"This will require hard choices among competing priorities within the organization, which must balance its core missions in science, aeronautics, and human space flight and exploration. In addition, NASA will be competing for an ever-shrinking share of discretionary spending against other national priorities such as the economy, fighting terrorism, and health care reform," the GAO stated. 

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The GAO went on to say that while NASA has had significant achievements exploring space, helping the world understand Earth's environment, and conducting fundamental aeronautical research -- it has not achieved the same level of success on its business side. For 20 years, NASA acquisition management has been on GAO's list of federal programs and operations at high risk and vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, the GAO stated. 

With that background in mind the GAO highlighted 4 key areas that will continue to challenge NASA no matter how radically it shifts priorities. 

Space shuttle retirement: The shuttle is set for five more missions to help complete the International Space Station.  In its 2011 budget, the Administration is proposing over $600 million to ensure that the space shuttle can fly in case the space shuttle's schedule slips into fiscal year 2011. 

Retirement of the shuttle will involve many activities that warrant special attention. "These include: disposing of the facilities that no longer are needed while complying with federal, state, and local environmental laws and regulations; ensuring the retention of critical skills within NASA's workforce and its suppliers; and disposing of over 1 million equipment items. In addition, the total cost of shuttle retirement and transition-to include the disposition of the orbiters themselves-is not readily transparent in NASA's budget," the GAO stated. "NASA has recognized that sustaining the shuttle workforce through the retirement of the shuttle while ensuring that a viable workforce is available to support future activities is a major challenge." 

Getting the most from the ISS: According to the GAO, the ISS faces several significant challenges including: The retirement of the Space Shuttle and the loss of its unmatched capacity to move cargo and astronauts to and from the station; the uncertain future for the station beyond 2015; and the limited time available for research due to competing demands for the crew's time.  Unless the decision is made to extend station operations, NASA has only 5 years to execute a robust research program before the International Space Station is deorbited. The leaves little time to establish a strong utilization program, the GAO stated. 

Even if such a program were developed, NASA faces a significant constraint because of limited crew time. "There can only be six crew members aboard the station at one time due to the number of spaces available in the "lifeboats," or docked spacecraft that can transport the crew in case of an emergency. As such, crew time cannot presently be increased to meet increased demand. Though available crew time may increase as the six-person crew becomes more experienced with operating the space station efficiently or if the crew volunteers its free time for research, crew time for US research remains a limiting factor," the GAO stated. 

Large-scale system development problems: NASA's cost expectations have long been a bugaboo. The GAO says NASA projects have produced ground-breaking research and advanced our understanding of the universe, but a common theme binds most of the projects-they cost more and take longer to develop than planned. The GAO reported in a recent look at NASA's 19 most costly projects-which have a combined life-cycle cost that exceeds $66 billion- found NASA projects continue to experience cost growth and schedule delays. Ten of 19 projects currently under development, which had there baselines set within the last 3 years, experienced cost growth averaging $121.1 million or 18.7% and the average delivery delay was 15 months. The GAO pointed at the Mars Science Laboratory project that is currently seeking reauthorization from Congress after experiencing development cost growth in excess of 30%, the GAO said.

Information technology and financial management troubles:  NASA has continually struggled to put its financial house in order for years, the GAO stated. The NASA Inspector General has identified financial management as one of NASA's most serious challenges.  In a November 2008 report, the Inspector General found continuing weaknesses in NASA's financial management.  It noted that these deficiencies have resulted in disclaimed audits of NASA's financial statements since fiscal year 2003. The disclaimers were largely attributed to data integrity issues and poor internal controls. NASA has made progress in addressing some of these issues, but the recent disclaimer the fiscal year 2009 audit shows that more work remains, the GAO stated. 

Meanwhile, the space agency's network infrastructure remains a security risk.  NASA has not always implemented sufficient controls to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the information and systems supporting its mission directorates," the GAO stated. During fiscal years 2007 and 2008, NASA reported 1,120 security incidents that resulted in the installation of malicious software on its systems and unauthorized access to sensitive information, the GAO stated. 

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