NASA IG: NEO Program Structure and Resources Are Inadequate

NASA IG: NEO Program Structure and Resources Are Inadequate

NASA’s Inspector General (IG) released a report today that finds NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) program does not have the structure or resources it needs.  The IG made five recommendations and the report states NASA management concurred with all of them.

As the report makes clear, the NEO program has grown significantly in a short period of time.  In FY2009, it was funded at $4 million per year.  Today it is $40 million per year.  The rapid growth is partially in response to congressional direction that the agency find, track and catalog 90 percent of NEOs 140 meters or more in diameter by 2020 and partially in support of President Obama’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  

NEOs are asteroids and comets that come into Earth’s neighborhood — typically described as having a perihelion of less than 1.3 Astronomical Units (AU).  One AU is 93 million miles.  The IG report, however, describes them as passing within 28 million miles of Earth’s orbit.   Congressional concern about NEOs that could pose a hazard to Earth dates back to early 1990s.  Initially, Congress directed NASA to find and catalogue 90 percent of NEOs with a diameter of 1 kilometer or more within 10 years.  NASA met that goal and in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act Congress directed NASA to begin doing the same for the smaller 140-meter diameter NEOs.  In support of the ARM program, NASA now is looking for even smaller asteroids, 7-10 meters in diameter, that could be nudged into orbit around the Moon using a robotic spacecraft where the asteroid would be visited by astronauts.  The NEO budget had grown to $20 million per year in response to the congressional direction and was doubled in order to support ARM.

Despite the growth of the program, it is still the responsibility of “a single Program Executive at [NASA] Headquarters who has no dedicated staff to assist with Program oversight,” the IG report states.  It also found that the “NEO program lacks a plan with integrated milestones, defined objectives, and cost and schedule estimates to assist in tracking and attaining Program goals.”  

The report recommends that NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) —

  • develop a formal NEO Program that meets NASA’s policies, including a strategic plan, integrated master schedule and cost estimates;
  • develop and implement requirements, procedures, and internal controls to address program deficiencies;
  • perform an analysis to determine the appropriate number of staff required to manage, oversee and administer the Program;
  • develop a plan to establish formal partnerships with domestic and international agencies to leverage resources and complementary technologies; and
  • establish an oversight process pursuant to which NASA-funded observatories would have to coordinate with each other to avoid duplication of efforts.

According to the report, the AA for SMD, John Grunsfeld, concurred with all five recommendations and promised that an analysis of staff requirements would be completed by March 1, 2015 and a NEO Program Plan would be in place by September 1, 2015.

Linda Billings, a communications consultant to the NEO Program who is not involved in its management, wrote on her blog today that media headlines characterizing the IG report as being highly critical of the program are “a tad misleading.”  She argues that the overall message is not that the program lacks structure, but that it lacks the necessary resources to operate as a well-structured program.

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