GAO and NASA Concur on Steps Needed to Enhance ISS Utilization

GAO and NASA Concur on Steps Needed to Enhance ISS Utilization

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is recommending that NASA increase user outreach and centralize decision-making to enhance the use of the International Space Station (ISS) — and NASA concurs. In a report requested by Congress and issued today, GAO provided seven recommendations on how to enhance utilization of the ISS for research under two scenarios: the current plan to terminate U.S. funding in 2015, and the option to continue utilization through 2020. GAO reports that NASA concurred in all seven recommendations.

GAO cited several challenges for ISS utilization. “(1) the impending retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010, reduced launch capabilities once the shuttle retires, and the potential for a gap between retirement and follow-on U.S. vehicles; (2) high costs for launches and developing research hardware and a lack of dedicated funding streams for ISS research; (3) limited crew time available for research due to a fixed crew size and other requirements for crew time; and (4) an uncertain future for the ISS beyond 2015.

GAO’s analysis concluded that NASA will underutilize the ISS research capabilities to which NASA has access in the years ahead. Of the available NASA internal payload sites, “less than 50 percent …will be occupied by planned NASA research after the ISS is completed” and only 33% of the external research sites will be filled with research when assembly is completed, rising to 62% by 2015. By contrast, GAO says, the international partners “are fully utiilizing their ISS allocations…” NASA reportedly told GAO that it could fill its surplus capacity with “National Laboratory users.” Congress declared the ISS a National Laboratory in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act.

GAO looked once again at management structures for ISS utilization. This much-studied topic was the subject of a National Research Council report in 1999, for example. GAO had little to add to that or other studies of the issue, but identified three “common practices” that other national laboratories employ:

  • “Centralized management body: At each of the institutions GAO studied, there is a central body responsible for prioritizing and selecting research, even if there are different funding agencies. NASA’s ISS managers are currently not responsible for evaluating and selecting all research that will be conducted on the ISS, leaving this to the research sponsor.
  • In-house scientific and technical expertise: The institutions GAO studied have large staffs of in-house experts that can provide technical and engineering support to users. NASA’s staff members in ISS fundamental science research areas have been decentralized or reassigned, limiting its capability to provide user support.
  • Robust user outreach: The laboratories and institutes GAO studied place a high priority on user outreach and are actively involved in educating and recruiting users. NASA has conducted outreach to potential users in the public.”

Increased attention is being focused on how long to keep ISS operating as it finally nears completion of assembly. Many argue that with all that has been spent on the ISS over the past 25 years, it would be penny wise and pound foolish to walk away now from its potential as a scientific laboratory, or that terminating it as currently planned in 2015 would antagonize the other partners in the program. Others discount the scientific value of the ISS, or insist that in a budget constrained environment “legacy” programs like ISS need to make way for new initiatives

To the extent that it is a cost-benefit decision, the first question is how much has been spent on ISS. That remains a nebulous number. Press reports often refer to the ISS as a $100 billion facility, a figure that dates back more than a decade as an estimate of its total cost at the end of construction. In today’s report, GAO cites NASA as saying that the direct costs to the United States from 1994-2010 are $48.5 billion, with another $10 billion from the international partners. That omits another approximately $11 billion that NASA spent from 1985-1993 on the previous design, Freedom. In the past, GAO estimated higher costs than NASA for the ISS because GAO calculated the costs of ISS-related shuttle flights using the shuttle’s average launch costs while NASA used marginal costs, a significant difference. In today’s report, GAO apparently simply used NASA’s numbers.

President Obama is currently considering the future direction of the U.S. human space flight program against the backdrop of options presented by the Augustine committee. That committee made the case for extending ISS utilization through 2020, but also said that such an extension would cost $13.7 billion between now and then.

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