NASA IG briefs House Appropriators on Space Agency’s Top Concerns

February 10th, 2011



NASA Inspector General Paul Martin underscored the urgency of addressing the uncertainty over the agency’s human spaceflight program in testimony presented Thursday to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science.

The Appropriations Committee is scheduling dozens of hearings with federal inspectors general, each sworn to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse within their respective agencies.

“At the present time, NASA finds itself in a state of significant uncertainty, particularly with respect to its human space program,” Martin stated in prepared testimony presented to the subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over NASA spending. “The most immediate challenge facing NASA’s leadership is to manage the agency’s portfolio of space and science missions amid the continuing lack of clarity caused by conflicting legislative directives in the Authorization Act and a holdover provision in NASA’s fiscal year 2010 appropriations law.”

The authorization measure directs NASA to develop a new heavy lift rocket and multi-purpose crew capsule to replace the shuttle, which is scheduled to retire later this year. It directs NASA to complete the development by the end of 2016, a deadline agency officials have said they cannot meet with the funding available. The new rocket and capsule would transport astronauts to the International Space Station as well as to deep space destinations.

At the same time, most of the federal government, including NASA, is operating without a 2011 budget. Instead, most agencies are operating under an extension of the more restrictive 2010 budget.

In NASA’s case, the 2010 appropriations measure prevents the agency from transitioning from the Constellation Program to the heavy lift rocket and multi-purpose capsule projects as well as a commercial space transportation initiative.

The legislative snag will cost NASA $575 million by Oct. 1, the start of the 2012 fiscal year, if not corrected by Congress, Martin told the subcommittee.

Martin raised related issues as well.

High on that list of concerns is the disposition of $12 billion in facilities and property associated with the retiring shuttle program. Along side, is a gap of undetermined length between the shuttle’s retirement and the first flights of commercial U. S. spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts and cargo to the space station.

Until commercial transportation providers are available, NASA is faced with paying Russia to carry astronauts to and from the station, Martin noted.

In addition, NASA is faced with cost over-runs in the development of the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars Science Laboratory. The James Webb is a joint effort with the European Space Agency to produce a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, is designed to roll over the Martian terrain to identify environments where microbial life may have arisen.

Recent IG audits also found that NASA is brimming with aging and under-utilized warehouse and laboratory facilities, many of them in need of significant refurbishment. Auditors placed the deferred maintenance expense at $2.55 billion.