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GAO Issues Pair of Reports on NASA Program Management Challenges

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a pair of reports today about acqusition and management challenges at NASA. One is the third annual report to Congress on "NASA: Assessments of Selected Large Scale Projects," and the other is a letter to NASA Administrator Bolden identifying "several issues that merit your management attenion."

The report assesses 21 NASA projects costing a total of more than $68 billion. GAO found that of the 16 programs in that set where cost and schedule baselines had been established, development costs had an average growth of 14.6 percent and schedules slipped by an average of eight months. The congressional watchdog agency noted, however, that the cost growth figure was deceptive because it did not include cost growth incurred before NASA was required to report baselines to Congress. Thirteen projects that GAO studied over the past three years "that established baselines prior to 2009 experienced an average development cost growth of almost 55 percent," the report says. It adds that those figures do not include cost growth that is likely to be experienced on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The letter to Bolden stresses that today's fiscal environment means that difficult choices will have to be made, and that NASA's projects "frequently are approved without evidence of a sound business case." The letter recommends that NASA --

"(1) provide increased transparency into project costs to the Congress to conduct oversight and ensure earlier accountability and (2) develop a common set of measurable and proven criteria to assess the design stability of projects before proceeding into later phases of development."

The report acknowledges that NASA is implementing a new cost estimation tool, the Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level, and that the agency "continues to take positive steps, but it will be some time before the impact of its efforts can be measured."

Senate Passes Two-Week CR, Now It's the President's Turn

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Senate has passed the Continuing Resolution (CR) that was approved by the House yesterday. It will keep the government operating until March 18. The bill now goes to the President for signature.

Senate Expected to Pass House CR, Avert Shutdown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Word is that the Senate will indeed pass the Continuing Resolution (CR) that was approved by the House yesterday extending government operations until March 18. That would temporarily avert a government shutdown while debate continues on what will happen with the rest of FY2011.

The House-passed CR (H. J. Res. 44) does not directly affect NASA. NOAA or DOD space programs. It does have indirect effects, continuing the uncertainty about how much money the agencies will get this year. It also leaves in place the restriction against NASA terminating the Constellation program that was in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

President Signs Two-Week CR Into Law

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

President Obama has signed into law the two-week CR that passed the House yesterday and the Senate today (H. J. Res. 44). No government shutdown will occur, at least for now.

That finalizes action on the FY2011 budget -- but for only two more weeks, until March 18. The long-term CR that passed the House on February 19 (H.R. 1) is still in play. It would fund the government for the rest of FY2011 (through September 30) and cut $61 billion from current (FY2010) spending levels. NASA's budget for FY2011 would be $18.1 billion under that CR, compared to its current spending level of $18.7 billion and the President's FY2011 request of $19.0 billion.

NIAC2 Gets Underway at NASA, Two Other Technology Solicitations Announced

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's acronym NIAC used to mean the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. Established in 1998 to provide an independent source of advanced aeronautical and space concepts for the agency, it was terminated for budgetary reasons in 2007. At congressional direction, the National Research Council (NRC) did a study of what had been accomplished by NIAC and whether it should be resurrected. The study, co-chaired by Robert (Bobby) Braun of Georgia Tech and Dianne Wiley of Boeing, recommended that a NIAC-like entity -- "NIAC2" -- be reestablished. That process has begun.

In 2009, Bobby Braun became NASA's Chief Technologist. NIAC originally was under the purview of the NASA Chief Technologist to ensure that its advanced concepts were broadly applicable to agency needs, but was later transferred to a single mission directorate -- the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate -- where it "lost its alignment with sponsor objectives and priorities" according to the NRC report. Thus, the NRC recommended that NIAC2 report to the Office of the Administrator and not a specific mission directorate. NIAC grants also were available only to external researchers. The NRC recommended that NIAC2 be open to internal NASA participants as well.

Yesterday, NASA issued a NASA Research Announcement (NRA) for proposals for Phase I NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, a program managed by the Office of the Chief Technologist -- essentially NIAC2. According to the NRA --

Concepts proposed for NIAC Phase I studies must be innovative and visionary, technically substantiated, and very early in development (10+ years out; Technology Readiness Level 1, 2, or early 3). Focused technology maturation and incremental improvement are explicitly not of interest in this program. Finally, while NIAC encourages great leaps and accepts the accompanying risk, all proposals must be technically credible, based on sound scientific principles.

Interestingly, a footnote in the NRA explains that NASA is not looking for focused technologies, but architectures, missions, and system concepts. Notices of Intent are due March 29; proposals are due May 2.

NASA also announced two other space technology solicitations. The Game Changing Development Program is for "revolutionary improvements in America's space capabilities," while Technology Demonstration Mission proposals are being sought for high-bandwidth deep space communication, navigation and timing, orbital debris mitigation or removal systems, advanced in-space propulsion systems, and autonomous rendezvous, docking, close proximity operations and formation flying.

With NASA's funding situation uncertain, it is not clear how many, if any, grants will be made for any of these solicitations, however.

NASA Names Lead Centers for Human Spaceflight Roles

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA may be caught between a rock and a hard place -- an authorization law telling them what to do, but continued uncertainty over how much money they will get to do it -- but the agency nonetheless named lead centers to execute the policy enunciated in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

Kennedy Space Center (KSC) will be the lead center for "enabling commercial human spaceflight capabilities," Johnson Space Center (JSC) will be responsible for developing the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and Marshall Space Flight Center will take the lead for a new Space Launch System.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden unofficially announced these assignments at a breakfast meeting on February 17 sponsored by the National Space Club in Washington, but the agency made it official in a press release yesterday. None is a surprise. JSC and Marshall are continuing familiar responsibilities and NASA's attempts to woo commercial crew providers to use NASA's Florida facilities made KSC a sure bet for that role.

House SS&T Committee Charges Administration with Flipping Priorities in FY2012 Budget Request

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 02-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

During today's hearing of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee (HSS&T), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Charles Bolden was sharply questioned on the priorities reflected in the President's FY2012 budget request. Members repeatedly said the request does not follow Congress's directives for the agency as laid out in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, particularly with respect to human spaceflight.

Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) began the hearing saying that "the Administration's FY2012 budget proposal completely flips the priorities of the Act, significantly increasing Commercial Crew funding while making deep cuts to the Human Exploration Capabilities accounts." Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the Committee, echoed this sentiment saying, "I had thought the Administration agreed with the compromise [agreed to in the Authorization], but I'm afraid I do not see it reflected in the NASA budget request."

Although some Members attempted to get Bolden to speculate on the impact of cuts that were contained in the Continuing Resolution (CR) passed by the House on February 19, he declined to do so because they are not final yet. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) quizzed Bolden about whether the White House or NASA informed Congress of the potential impact of a $300 million reduction adopted during floor debate, asserting that Republicans had tried to protect NASA while Democrats had not. The amendment was offered by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). Gen. Bolden said he would provide an answer for the record about what NASA did or did not tell Congress in that regard.

Brooks neglected to mention that the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee also cut about $300 million from NASA's budget in the bill they sent to floor. Thus, that CR (H.R. 1) contains a total cut of $601 million from NASA's FY2010 spending level. Congress continues to consider that CR, which would last through the end of FY2011. It passed a different CR (H. J. Res. 44) this week to fund the government through March 18; that one does not contain NASA-specific cuts.

The main issue of contention during the hearing, however, was the agency's decision to request more money for development of commercial crew services for transport to low Earth orbit (LEO) than authorized in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and less for a new NASA-developed Space Launch System (also called a heavy lift launch vehicle--HLLV) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Members asked whether NASA would comply with the directive in the law to fly a new HLLV and crew capsule by 2016.

Gen. Bolden explained that with budget constraints in mind and with safety still his number one priority, commercial transport to LEO remains the Administration's preferred option. Development of the HLLV and crew capsule are for exploration missions beyond LEO, he said, and while they would serve as backup for LEO access if commercial ventures fail, it would be expensive to use them for that purpose. Developing them by 2016 is "difficult" under current budget constraints, he said, and NASA would be "challenged no matter how much money you give us." An interim report sent to Congress by NASA in January on the preliminary designs for the two systems said the agency could not build them on the timescale and within the funding level authorized in the law.

A summary of the hearing will be available on soon.

Space Programs Not Singled Out in GAO's "Duplication" Report

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Space programs at DOD, NASA and NOAA escape pretty much unscathed in the Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) new report on how to reduce duplication in government programs.

"Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue" is a 340 page report from GAO issued today in response to a congressional directive that each year the congressional support agency tell Congress about programs, agencies, offices and initiatives in the government that have duplicative goals or activities. This is the first of those reports. GAO also decided on its own to identify other "opportunities" for agencies or Congress "to reduce the cost of goverment operations or enhance revenue collections for the Treasury."

Space programs are hardly mentioned at all in the report. DOD is even given credit for saving $10 million on a satellite contract by not paying an award fee to a contractor whose performance did not merit one. DOD's Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities include space-based systems and is one of the areas GAO identified as ripe for streamlining, but the space-based systems were not singled out for special attention; it is primarily an organization and management issue.

Ten agencies including DOD and NASA have a combined total of 82 programs to improve teacher quality and GAO concludes that the resulting fragmentation "can frustrate agency efforts to administer programs in a comprehensive manner, limit the ability to determine which programs are most cost-effective, and ultimately increases program costs." It notes, for example, that 9 of the 82 programs are for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education administered in five different departments or agencies (Departments of Education, Defense and Energy plus NASA and the National Science Foundation).

Federal data center and server consolidation could save an estimated $150-200 billion over the next decade, GAO states, and could involve two dozen agencies and departments, including DOD, NASA, and the Department of Commerce (of which NOAA is a part).

The only other space-related topic mentioned in the GAO report is the State Department's organizational arrangement for arms control and nonproliferation -- which includes space policy. In 2006, the Department merged three bureaus into two: Verification, Compliance and Implementation (VCI) and International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN). (There are space policy elements in both.) A State Department report written afterwards concluded "mission redundancies persisted for chemical weapons, missle defense and space policy, nuclear nonproliferation, and bioterrorism among 14 offices" in the new structure. State announced a new reorganization in October 2010 and GAO says that the Department should implement previous GAO recommendations that could reduce personnel and other overhead costs in the two bureaus.

Somewhat surprisingly, export controls are barely mentioned, and not in the context familiar to readers -- the impact of ITAR on defense and aerospace companies. GAO talks about collecting "antidumping and countervailing duties," but not about streamlining the government's export control bureaucracy. President Obama has been taking steps in that regard for the past two years. Also no mention of streamlining salmon regulations, which the President humorously raised in his State of the Union address.

NYT: Space Tourism May Mean One Giant Leap for Researchers

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Kenneth Chang at the New York Times has a good article today about the suborbital researchers conference going on in Orlando. The article focuses on how scientists can use suborbital flight opportunities provided by companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Blue Origin and Masten Space Systems. In some cases, scientists can go along for the ride if they have about $200,000 for a ticket.

"Scientists currently have a few options for investigating weightlessness. They can drop the experiment from a tall tower, which provides a couple of seconds of zero gravity before it goes splat on the ground. They can send the experiment up in an airplane that flies an arcing trajectory known as a parabola, which provides up to half a minute of apparent weightlessness. Or they can get something to the International Space Station, where the pull of gravity is continuously absent.

"The suborbital flights will offer an opportunity that falls between the parabolic plane flights and the space station."

NRC Workshop on MMOD Next Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The National Research Council's (NRC's) Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) is holding a workshop next week to gather ideas on gaps and possible directions for NASA's Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD) Programs. The public is invited to attend.

The workshop will be held March 9-10, 2011 at the Mason Inn Conference Center and Hotel in Fairfax, VA. The agenda and more details can be found on the ASEB website. One of the more interesting sessions is how to retrieve and remove orbital debris as called for in President Obama's National Space Policy.

The workshop is part of an NRC study that is assessing NASA's orbital debris activities.

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