oversight

NASA: Shuttle Fleet's Safe Return to Flight Is Key to Space Station Progress

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-10-29.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                               United States General Accounting Office

GAO                            Testimony
                               Before the Subcommittee on Science,
                               Technology, and Space, Committee on
                               Commerce, Science, and Transportation,
                               United States Senate
For Release on Delivery 

Expected at 2:00 p.m., EST 

Wednesday, October 29, 2003    NASA

                               Shuttle Fleet’s Safe Return
                               to Flight Is Key to Space
                               Station Progress
                               Statement of Allen Li, Director
                               Acquisition and Sourcing Management




GAO-04-201T 

                                                 October 29, 2003


                                                 NASA

                                                 Shuttle Fleet's Safe Return to Flight Is
 Highlights of GAO-04-201T, 
                    Key to Space Station Progress
 a testimony before the Subcommittee on 

 Science, Technology, and Space,

 Committee on Commerce, Science, and 

 Transportation, U.S. Senate 





Since its inception, the                         Since the grounding of the shuttle fleet last February, the space station has
International Space Station has                  been in a survival mode. Due to the limited payload capacity of the Russian
experienced numerous problems                    launch vehicles—which the program must now rely on to transport crew and
that have resulted in significant                supplies to and from the station—on-orbit assembly is at a standstill and on-
cost growth and assembly schedule                board research has been limited. Moreover, certain safety concerns on
slippages. Following the Columbia                board the station cannot be corrected until the shuttle fleet returns to flight.
accident and the subsequent                      For example, NASA has had to delay plans to fly additional shielding to
grounding of the shuttle fleet in                protect the on-orbit Russian Service Module from space debris—a risk that
February 2003, concerns about the                increases each year the shielding is not installed.
future of the space station
escalated, as the fleet has been key
                                                 To date, NASA has not fully estimated the increased costs and future budget
to the station’s assembly and
operations.                                      impact incurred due to the grounding of the space shuttle fleet. However, it
                                                 projects that additional costs of maintaining the space station while the
In August 2003, the Columbia                     shuttle fleet is grounded will reach almost $100 million for fiscal years 2003
Accident Investigation Board drew                and 2004. It has also identified a number of factors that will affect costs—
a causal link between aggressive                 including the need to extend contracts to complete development and
space station goals—supported by                 assembly of the station. Delays in completing the assembly of the station—
the National Aeronautics and Space               which will be at least 2 years—are likely to incur significant additional
Administration’s (NASA) current                  program costs. At the same time, partner funding is uncertain, which may
culture—and the accident.                        result in NASA paying a larger share of certain program costs.
Specifically, the Board reported
that, in addition to technical                   Although the full impact of the shuttle fleet’s grounding on the space station
failures, Columbia’s safety was                  is still unknown, it is clear that the station’s future is dependent on the
compromised in part by internal
                                                 shuttle fleet’s return to flight. NASA must carefully weigh this future against
pressures to meet an ambitious
launch schedule to achieve certain               the risks inherent in its current culture. As we reported early this year,
space station milestones.                        NASA’s organization and culture has repeatedly undermined the agency’s
                                                 ability to achieve its mission. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board
This testimony discusses the                     similarly found that NASA’s history and culture have been detrimental to the
implications of the shuttle fleet’s              shuttle fleet’s safety and that needed improvements at NASA go beyond
grounding on the space station’s                 technical enhancements and procedural modifications. The cultural change
schedule and cost, and on the                    required for NASA to consider the numerous technical and administrative
program’s partner funding and                    recommendations made by the Board could be the agency’s greatest
agreements—findings we reported                  challenge to date.
on in September 2003. The
testimony also proposes a                                                                           .
                                                 In an effort to help NASA as it undergoes this change—and  the Congress as
framework for providing NASA and
the Congress with a means to bring               it assesses NASA’s future corrective actions—we have provided a
about and assess needed cultural                 framework for establishing appropriate operating principles and values and
changes across the agency.                       program direction, securing and maintaining a sufficient and skilled
                                                 workforce, establishing proper performance targets, and ensuring adequate
                                                 monitoring.


 www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-04-201T.

 To view the full product, click on the link
 above. For more information, contact Allen Li
 at (202) 512-4841 or lia@gao.gov.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

We are pleased to be here today to discuss the challenges facing the
International Space Station in the wake of the Columbia accident. The
grounding of the shuttle fleet this past February escalated concerns about
the future of the space station—which, since its inception, has
experienced numerous problems that have resulted in significant cost
growth and assembly schedule slippages. The shuttle fleet has been key to
the station’s assembly and operations, and without it, the program must
rely on Russian launch vehicles to transport crew and supplies to and from
the station. As requested, my testimony today will discuss the implications
of the shuttle fleet’s grounding on the space station’s schedule and cost
and on the program’s partner funding and agreements—findings we
reported on to the full Committee in September 2003.1

You asked how the Congress can assess the cultural changes that the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is considering as
the agency proceeds with its efforts to safely return the shuttle fleet to
flight. As you know, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board reported
in August 2003 that in addition to technical failures, Columbia’s safety was
compromised in part by the shuttle program’s fluctuating priorities and
arbitrary schedule pressures to achieve certain space station milestones.2
The Board characterized NASA’s emphasis on maintaining the launch
schedule to support construction of the station as a “line in the sand” and
found evidence that structural inspection requirements for the shuttle
were reduced and other requirements were deferred in order to meet an
ambitious schedule. NASA’s recent revision to its return to flight plan
recognizes that to ensure safety in all its programs, a cultural change is
needed across the agency. Today, I am proposing a framework intended to
provide NASA and the Congress with a means to assess cultural change in
the context of NASA’s overall mission.

In summary, the grounding of the shuttle fleet last February has basically
put the space station in a survival mode. Due to the limited payload
capacity of the Russian launch vehicles, on-orbit assembly is at a standstill
and on-board research has been limited. Moreover, certain safety concerns
on board the station cannot be corrected until the shuttle fleet returns to


1
 U.S. General Accounting Office, Space Station: Impact of the Grounding of the Shuttle
Fleet, GAO-03-1107 (Washington, D.C.: Sept.12, 2003).
2
    Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Report Volume 1 (Washington, D.C.: Aug. 2003).



Page 1                                                                      GAO-04-201T
               flight. NASA estimates that additional costs of maintaining the space
               station while the shuttle fleet is grounded will reach almost $100 million
               for fiscal years 2003 and 2004. However, significant additional program
               costs are likely to be incurred because completing assembly of the station
               will be delayed by at least 2 years. At the same time, partner funding is
               uncertain—which may result in NASA paying a larger share of certain
               program costs—and partner agreement on the final station configuration
               has been delayed by approximately one year.

               While the space station’s future is clearly dependent on the shuttle fleet’s
               return to flight, NASA must carefully weigh this future against the risks
               inherent in its current culture. As we reported in January 2003, NASA’s
               management challenges and risks reflect a deeper need for broad cultural
               change to eliminate organizational stovepipes and hierarchy, which have
               repeatedly undermined the agency’s ability to achieve its mission.3 The
               Columbia Accident Investigation Board similarly found in its August 2003
               report that NASA’s history and culture resulted in organizational practices
               that have been detrimental to the shuttle fleet’s safety. The cultural sea
               change required for NASA to consider the numerous technical and
               administrative recommendations made by the Board could be the agency’s
               greatest challenge to date. In an effort to help NASA as it undergoes a
               cultural change—and the Congress as it assesses NASA’s future corrective
               actions—we have provided a framework for establishing appropriate
               operating principles and values and program direction, securing and
               maintaining a sufficient and skilled workforce, establishing proper
               performance targets, and ensuring adequate monitoring.


               In 1998, NASA and its international partners—Canada, Europe, Japan, and
Background 	   Russia—began on-orbit assembly of the International Space Station,
               envisioned as a permanently orbiting laboratory for conducting materials
               and life sciences research and earth observations under nearly weightless
               conditions. The International Space Station program has three key goals:
               (1) maintain a permanent human presence in space, (2) conduct world-
               class research in space, and (3) enhance international cooperation and
               U.S. leadership through international development and operations of the




               3
                U.S. General Accounting Office, Major Management Challenges and Program Risks:
               National Aeronautics and Space Administration, GAO-03-114 (Washington, D.C.:
               Jan. 2003).



               Page 2                                                                GAO-04-201T
space station. Each of the partners is to provide hardware and crew, and
each is expected to share operating costs and use of the station.4

Since October 2000, the space station has been permanently occupied by
two or three crewmembers, who maintain and operate the station and
conduct hands-on scientific research. The space station is composed of
numerous modules, including solar arrays for generating electricity,
remote manipulator systems, and research facilities. The station is being
designed as a laboratory in space for conducting experiments in near-zero
gravity. Life sciences research on how humans adapt to long durations in
space, biomedical research, and materials-processing research on new
materials or processes are under way or planned. In addition, the station
will be used for various earth science and observation activities. Figure 1
shows the International Space Station on orbit.




4
  In 1996, NASA and the Russian Aviation and Space Agency signed a “balance protocol”
listing the services that each side would provide to the other during assembly and
operations.



Page 3                                                                    GAO-04-201T
Figure 1: International Space Station On Orbit




Since fiscal year 1985, the Congress has appropriated a total of about
$32 billion for the program. When the station’s current design was
approved in 1993, NASA estimated that its cost would be $17.4 billion.5 By
1998, that estimate had increased to $26.4 billion. In January 2001, NASA
announced that an additional $4 billion in funding over a 5-year period
would be required to complete the station’s assembly and sustain its
operations. By May 2001, that estimated cost growth increased to
$4.8 billion. In an effort to control space station costs, the administration
announced in its February 2001 Budget Blueprint that it would cancel or
defer some hardware and limit construction of the space station at a stage
the administration calls “core complete.”

In November 2001, the International Space Station Management and Cost
Evaluation Task Force—appointed by the NASA Administrator—made a
number of recommendations to get costs under control. NASA
implemented most of the recommendations, and the task force reported in
December 2002 that significant progress had been made in nearly all


5
    All amounts are stated in current-year dollars.



Page 4                                                           GAO-04-201T
                            aspects of the program, including establishing a new management
                            structure and strategy, program planning and performance monitoring
                            processes, and metrics. NASA was postured to see results of this progress
                            and to verify the sufficiency of its fiscal year 2003 budget to provide for the
                            core complete version of the station when the Columbia accident
                            occurred.


                            With the shuttle fleet grounded, NASA is heavily dependent on its
Grounding of the            international partners—especially Russia—for operations and logistics
Shuttle Fleet Will          support for the space station. However, due to the limited payload
                            capacity of the Russian space vehicles, on-orbit assembly has been halted.
Result in Additional        The program’s priority has shifted from station construction and research
Schedule Delays and         to maintenance and safety, but these areas have also presented significant
                            challenges and could further delay assembly of the core complete
Cost                        configuration. While NASA maintains that its fiscal year 2004 budget will
                            remain unchanged, the schedule delays that have resulted from the
                            grounding of the shuttle fleet will come at a cost.


Program’s Priority Has      The space shuttle fleet has been the primary means to launch key
Shifted From Station        hardware to the station because of its larger payload capacity. With the
Construction and Research   shuttle fleet grounded, current space station operations are solely
                            dependent on the Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles. Because the
to Maintenance and Safety   payload capacity of the Soyuz and Progress vehicles are significantly less
                            than that of the U.S. shuttle fleet,6 operations are generally limited to
                            rotating crew and transporting food, potable water,7 and other items to the
                            station. The Russian vehicles are also used for logistics support.

                            On-orbit assembly of the station has effectively ceased. Prior to the
                            Columbia accident, NASA had planned to assemble the core complete
                            configuration of the station by February 2004. NASA officials estimate that
                            assembly delays will be at least a “month for month” slip from the previous
                            schedule, depending on the frequency of flights when the shuttles resume
                            operations. Assuming a return to flight around fall 2004, the core complete
                            configuration would not be assembled before early 2006.


                            6
                             At about 36,000 pounds, the shuttle’s payload capacity is roughly 7 times that of Russia’s
                            Progress vehicle and almost 35 times the payload capacity of its Soyuz vehicle.
                            7
                             Potable water is a constraint to sustaining station operations. For example, crewmembers
                            currently have a limit of two liters of water per day per crewmember.



                            Page 5                                                                        GAO-04-201T
     While the space station crew’s primary responsibility is to perform routine
     maintenance, the two crewmembers on board will conduct some research,
     according to an interim space station research plan developed by NASA.
     However, due to the grounding of the shuttle fleet and the station’s
     reliance on the Russian vehicles, this research will be curtailed. For
     example:

•	  Outfitting of U.S. research facilities halted: Currently, 7 of the 20 planned
    research facilities are on orbit. With the fleet grounded, three major
    research facilities—which, according to NASA, complete the outfitting of
    the U.S. laboratory—could not be launched in March of this year, as
    planned.8 At this time, it remains unknown when the full configuration of
    the 20 research facilities will be on board the station.
• 	 Existing hardware failures: Because new and additional hardware cannot
    be transported, NASA has to rely more heavily on existing on-orbit science
    facilities—facilities that have already experienced some failures. For
    example, the refrigerator-freezers on board the station, which serve as the
    main cold storage units, have failed several times, according to NASA
    officials. A larger cold temperature facility was one of three facilities that
    had been planned for launch in March 2003.
• 	 Limited science material: Currently, there are very limited allocations for
    science materials to be transported to or from the space station by the
    Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles.9 According to NASA officials, they
    plan to send about 93 kilograms (just over 200 pounds) of science material
    to the station on the next Progress vehicle scheduled for launch in January
    2004. However, returning samples from investigations will be delayed until
    the shuttle fleet returns to flight because of the Soyuz’s limited storage
    capacity.

     NASA also cannot resolve known safety concerns on board the station
     while the shuttle fleet is grounded. For example, NASA has had to delay
     plans to fly additional shielding to protect the on-orbit Russian Service
     Module from space debris—a risk that increases each year the shielding is
     not installed. NASA is studying alternatives for launching and installing the
     debris protection panels earlier than currently planned. In addition, a
     failed on-orbit gyro—one of four that maintains the station’s orbital


     8
       The research facilities that were packed in a logistics module awaiting launch had to be
     removed from the flight module and serviced.
     9
      Currently, science material is flown on a space and weight available basis. For example, if
     food or other life support items were not depleted between flights, science material might
     be transported.



     Page 6                                                                        GAO-04-201T
                             stability and control—remains on board because the shuttle flight that was
                             to carry a replacement gyro to the station and return the failed unit for
                             detailed analysis was planned for March of this year—1 month after the
                             grounding of the shuttle fleet.


Cost Implications Have Yet   To date, NASA has not fully estimated the potential increased costs and
to Be Determined, but        future budget impact incurred due to the grounding of the space shuttle
Increases Are Likely         fleet. However, it has identified a number of factors that will likely result
                             in increased costs—including the need to extend contracts to complete
                             development and assembly of the station.

                             NASA has requested $1.71 billion for fiscal year 2004 for the space station.
                             The request is based, in part, on near completion of the hardware
                             development for the U.S. core configuration and the transition to on-orbit
                             operations. Soon after the Columbia accident, NASA stated that it would
                             maintain budget requests at current levels until the shuttle returns to
                             flight. NASA estimates the impact to the station program from the
                             Columbia accident to be $22 million in fiscal year 2003 and up to
                             $72 million in fiscal year 2004. NASA maintains that an assessment of total
                             impact cannot be accomplished prior to the fiscal year 2006 budget
                             submission in February 2005.

                             However, the considerable uncertainty about when the shuttle will return
                             to flight, what the payload capability will be, and how many flights can be
                             achieved each year greatly impact the total cost to the station program.
                             NASA anticipates that by keeping a crew on board the station while the
                             shuttle fleet is grounded and the continued development of space station
                             hardware will incur additional costs. For example, NASA officials told us
                             there are approximately 80,000 pounds of hardware at Kennedy Space
                             Station ready for integration to the space station and another 106,000
                             pounds there being processed.


                             While long-term plans are not well defined at this time, alternative funding
Uncertainty of the           may be needed to sustain the station—let alone achieve the station’s
Shuttle’s Return-to-         intended goals. International agreements governing the space station
                             partnership specify that the space agencies of the United States, Canada,
Flight Date Delays           Europe, and Japan are responsible for funding the operations and
Partner Agreements           maintenance of the elements that each contributes, the research activities
                             each conducts, and a share of common operating costs. Under current
                             planning, NASA will fund the entire cost of common supplies and ground
                             operations, then be reimbursed by the other partners for their shares.

                             Page 7                                                            GAO-04-201T
                     Depending on contributions made by the partners while the shuttle fleet is
                     grounded, the share that each partner contributes to the common
                     operations costs may have to be adjusted and could result in NASA’s
                     paying a larger share of those costs. For example, the European
                     Automated Transfer Vehicle is scheduled to begin flying in September
                     2004. If that vehicle takes on a larger role in supporting the station than
                     currently planned, the European share of common operations costs could
                     be reduced with the other partners paying more.

                     At the same time, NASA and its partners must develop a plan for
                     assembling the partners’ modules and reaching agreement on the final
                     station configuration. Prior to the Columbia accident, options for the final
                     on-orbit configuration were being studied, and a decision was planned for
                     December 2003. NASA officials told us the process has been delayed, and
                     NASA and its partners agreed on a program action plan in October 2003
                     that will ultimately lead to an agreement on the final on-orbit configuration
                     in December 2004.

                     Clearly, the space station’s future is dependent on the shuttle fleet’s safe
Proposed Framework   return to flight. In the past, we have reported on challenges facing NASA’s
for Guiding and      shuttle program—especially in maintaining an adequate shuttle
                     workforce.10 In January 2003, we reported that NASA needed to shift its
Assessing Cultural   overall orientation from processes to results, organizational stovepipes to
Change               matrixes, management hierarchy and control to flatter structures and
                     employee empowerment, and reactive behavior to proactive approaches.
                     The Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report and
                     recommendations similarly indicate that needed improvements to the
                     shuttle program go beyond technical enhancements and procedural
                     modifications. Specifically, the Board found that despite several schedule
                     slippages and rapidly diminishing schedule margins, NASA remained
                     committed to 10 shuttle launches in less than 16 months to achieve the
                     space station’s core complete status by February 2004—a target date set in
                     mid 2001. According to the Board, this schedule-driven environment
                     influenced managers’ decisions about the potential risks to the shuttle if a
                     piece of foam struck the orbiter—an event that had occurred during an
                     October 2002 shuttle flight and one that was ultimately identified as the
                     technical cause behind Columbia’s breakup. The Board concluded that



                     10
                      U.S. General Accounting Office, Space Shuttle: Human Capital and Safety Upgrade
                     Challenges Require Continued Attention, GAO/NSIAD/GGD-00-186 (Washington, D.C.:
                     Aug. 15, 2000).



                     Page 8                                                                 GAO-04-201T
     cultural issues—including lapses in leadership and communication, a
     dogged “can do” attitude, and reliance on past successes—were critical
     factors that contributed to the accident.

     In its September 8, 2003, response to the Board’s findings,11 NASA stated
     that it would pursue an in-depth assessment to identify and define areas
     where the agency’s culture can be improved and take aggressive action.”
     NASA indicated that it would take actions to achieve several goals:

•	  Create a culture that values effective communication and remove barriers
    to the expression of dissenting views.
• 	 Increase its focus on the human element of change management and
    organizational development.
• 	 Ensure that existing procedures are complete, accurate, fully understood,
    and followed.
• 	 Create a robust system that institutionalizes checks and balances to
    ensure the maintenance of the agency’s technical and safety standards.

     Most recently, on October 15, 2003, NASA indicated that the agency is also
     assessing if cultural change is needed agency-wide. However, the agency
     offered no further details beyond its previous commitments.

     As NASA works to change its culture, and as the Congress assesses the
     adequacy of NASA’s corrective actions, applying a framework could prove
     beneficial. Such a framework should recognize NASA’s operating
     principles and values, describe the direction of NASA’s programs, focus
     attention on securing and maintaining skills for its employees, provide
     safety targets, show key results, and acknowledge the importance of
     internal and external review. The following framework—similar in
     concept to GAO’s framework for ensuring the quality of its work—is
     anchored in four main areas: leadership, human capital, program
     performance, and monitoring and review.




     11
       See NASA, NASA’s Implementation Plan for Space Station Return to Flight and Beyond
     (Oct., 2003).



     Page 9                                                                GAO-04-201T
     Figure 2: Framework for Quality




•	  Leadership: The leadership anchor encompasses the agency’s core
    values, including safety as NASA’s highest priority; and the expectations
    that top management sets, such as stressing the importance of character,
    integrity, and support of safety assurance measures. This anchor also
    stresses the need to encourage staff to raise safety concerns, regardless of
    the staff member’s formal organizational relationships or job
    responsibilities. Strategic planning and stakeholder consultation have
    importance only if championed by NASA’s leadership. The leadership
    anchor helps address the question “What do we do?”
• 	 Human Capital: Securing and assigning skilled staff, understanding short-
    and long-term skill deficiencies, establishing and maintaining skills, as well
    as assessing individual employee performance are major components of a
    comprehensive human capital anchor. NASA’s efforts at developing a
    strategic human capital plan and legislative proposals related to human
    capital would be included in this anchor. The human capital anchor helps
    address the question “Who will do it?”



     Page 10                                                         GAO-04-201T
           •	  Program Performance: While the primary focus of program performance
               is often related to mission-related activities, such as flight processing and
               major modifications, effective program performance also measures results
               achieved, oversight of contractors, infrastructure maintenance, and sound
               financial management to provide decision makers with accurate
               information with which to make resource tradeoffs and long-term
               investments. The program performance anchor helps address the question
               “How do we translate what we do into processes and procedures—that is,
               how do we operationalize our work?”
           • 	 Monitoring and Review: The oversight and enforcement of safety is a
               shared responsibility between program officials, Associate Administrators,
               the NASA Administrator, and independent groups such as non-advocate
               reviews and the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. The monitoring and
               review anchor helps address the question “How is this reinforced?”

                We believe this framework can serve to identify the priorities agency
                leadership must communicate, the human capital activities needed to
                ensure that expected employee performance is achieved, the safety
                processes and procedures that need to be operationalized as part of
                program performance, and the scope of enforcement responsibilities. As
                such, use of this framework can help the Congress monitor the corrective
                actions NASA will undertake to strengthen the agency’s culture.


                Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I will be happy to
                answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may
                have.

                Contact and Acknowledgments
                For future information, please contact Allen Li at (202) 512-4841 or
                lia@gao.gov. Individuals making key contributions to this testimony
                include Jerry Herley, James Beard, Rick Cederholm, and Karen Sloan.




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                Page 11                                                         GAO-04-201T
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