Monday, 22 September 2014

NASA Office of Inspector General publishes report on extension of ISS operations

Shortly after NASA’s awards to Boeing and SpaceX concerning the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program, the NASA Office of Inspector General (IG) published an audit report on the extension of the ISS operations through 2024. The report assessed NASA’s (1) progress in certifying the Station’s structure and hardware for a longer lifespan, (2) cost and schedule estimates associated with the extension, (3) efforts to increase utilization of the Station for exploration and other scientific research (4) several of the contracts associated with the Station, including the Boeing ISS Vehicle Sustaining Engineering Contract (Boeing Contract).

The report found that although NASA has identified no major obstacles to extending ISS operations to 2024, it must address several areas of risk to ensure continued safe operations. The main risks of the ISS are insufficient power generation caused by degradation of tis solar arrays; sudden failures of key hardware systems that require unplanned spacewalks to repair or replace hardware; limited capacity to transport large replacement parts to the ISS, like solar arrays and radiators.

In addition, the audit concluded that NASA’s cost projections on prolonged ISS operations are overly optimistic. NASA projects its annual budget for the ISS Program to grow from $3 billion in FY 2014 to nearly $4 billion by FY 2020.  However, with a 26% cost increase between FYs 2011 and 2013 and an average annual increase of 8% over the life of the Program the cost is expected to be significantly higher. In the IG’s opinion, using commercial vehicles to transport US astronauts to the ISS will increase the cost compared to the current utilization of the Russian Soyuz capsule. An additional cost factor could be the future absence of contributions from other Partner States to the ISS.     

Third, while utilization of the ISS for research continues to increase, the US research capabilities through NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) need to be maximized. As to NASA, there is a need to prioritize its research to address risks associated with long-term human presence in space, because the Agency will not be able to address all of these risks, even if the ISS operations continue through 2024. Concerning CASIS, which is an entity that manages US non-NASA research on board the ISS, there are both funding problems and issues related to the researchers’ obligation under current legal regime to assign certain patent licenses to the US Government. Although NASA submitted proposed legislation in June 2013 to solve the legal problem by allowing researchers retain all rights in the inventions made, the proposal has not been included in any legislation introduced in Congress.  

Fourth, the IG found that NASA has not evaluated properly the Boeing contract, which has a cost of $17.3 billion. NASA’s Award-Fee Plan provides for evaluations to be conducted using weighted scores with grades in each of four categories. Nevertheless, NASA performed this evaluation for only two of the four categories.  Thus, NASA has paid Boeing between $6.7 and $13.2 million in award fees, which the IG could not validate. Despite NASA’s disagreement on these findings, the IG believes that NASA’s awards need to be more transparent. As a matter of fact, the IG underlines that it is the second time it questions NASA’s award-fee practices, the first time being in the November 2013 report. The IG is concerned that NASA’s practices may reflect a philosophy that as long as a mission performs ultimately well in scientific results, the Agency will overlook cost and schedule overruns during project performance.   

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