GAO Warns NASA to Avoid Management Mistakes Like Those That Led to Columbia Tragedy

GAO Warns NASA to Avoid Management Mistakes Like Those That Led to Columbia Tragedy

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report today assessing how NASA is integrating the three elements of its human exploration program — the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the Orion crew spacecraft, and associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS).  It is concerned that NASA is dual-hatting individuals to have responsibility both for programmatic and engineering decisions, which could create a conflict of interest as they balance cost and schedule versus safety.  GAO notes that the board that investigated the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy identified that as a contributing factor.

Individuals assigned to have responsibility for particular aspects of a space mission are designated as technical authorities. GAO said that “technical authorities for engineering and safety also have program roles that include managing resources.  When technical authorities must also deal with cost and schedule pressures, it can potentially impair their independence.  A review board concluded this type of tension contributed to the 2003 Columbia shuttle accident.”

The reference is to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) that determined the technical, managerial and cultural causes of the February 1, 2003 space shuttle accident that claimed the lives of six NASA astronauts (Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark) and the first Israeli astronaut (Ilan Ramon).

The SLS/Orion/EGS program is managed by the Exploration Systems Development (ESD) division within NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).  Unlike in previous human exploration programs where a single program manager oversaw the effort supported by an integration contractor, GAO said that this time ESD itself is managing both the program and the integration.  That saves money, but in GAO’s view, impairs the independence of engineering and safety technical oversight.  It used this graphic to explain the potential for conflicts of interest.

Excerpt from GAO Report 18-28, NASA Human Space Exploration: Integration Approach Presents Challenges to Oversight and Independence, p. 23.

GAO recommended that NASA discontinue dual-hatting individuals with both programmatic and engineering technical authorities.

As is typical with GAO reports, the agency was given the opportunity to respond to the findings and recommendations before publication.  NASA’s response is published as an appendix.  The agency partially concurred. While insisting that the dual-hat structure within ESD “has been understood and successfully implemented,” it said that as the program moves from design and development into integration and test, it plans to separate the functions, with engineering technical authority performed by the HEOMD Chief Engineer, who reports to the agency’s Office of Chief Engineer.  GAO rejoined that NASA should consult with the Office of Chief Engineer to determine whether that is sufficient to ensure no conflicts of interest or whether the engineering technical authority should be located entirely outside HEOMD.

GAO also said NASA’s management approach to integration makes it difficult to assess how the overall program is performing with regard to cost and schedule.  NASA has provided cost estimates for SLS and EGS only through the first launch, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), and a cost estimate for Orion only through EM-2, the first flight with a crew.  It recommended that Congress require NASA to provide cost and schedule estimates for SLS and EGS for EM-2, and cost and schedule baselines for subsequent missions.

As it has said in the past, NASA insisted that this is a long-term, multi mission program that does not lend itself to those types of performance metrics and “believes it has the processes in place to provide stakeholders insight to cost, schedule, and risks…”

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.