NASA Faces Serious Challenges With Aging Facilities

NASA’s aging infrastructure (Credit: NASA OIG)

A recent Inspector General report, NASA’s 2017 Top Management and Performance Challenges, finds the space agency is facing serious challenges in maintaining and upgrading aging buildings and test facilities at its far flung network of centers.  The following excerpt from the report shows the difficulties NASA has had in consolidating or eliminating unnecessary facilities.

Aging Infrastructure and Facilities

NASA controls approximately 5,000 buildings and structures with an estimated replacement value of at least $34 billion, making the Agency one of the largest property holders in the Federal Government. However, more than 80 percent of the Agency’s facilities are 40 or more years old and are beyond their design life. While NASA strives to keep these facilities operational – and when not operational, in sufficient condition so they do not pose a safety hazard – the Agency has not been able to fully fund required maintenance for its facilities for many years, with NASA estimating its deferred maintenance costs at $2.4 billion in 2016. The Agency faces ongoing operational challenges in this area as it juggles a long history of decentralized governance, intense political interest in its Centers and their real property assets, and the likelihood of flat or reduced budgets.

Over the last 7 years, the OIG has dedicated substantial resources – issuing 16 audit reports – examining NASA’s infrastructure challenges. In doing so, we assessed a variety of issues including NASA’s efforts to “right-size” its workforce, facilities, and other supporting assets; the construction of new assets such as test stands at Marshall Space Flight Center; NASA’s plans for underused test facilities at Plum Brook Station in Ohio; management of its Pressure Vessels and Pressurized Systems and Explosive Safety Programs; the Agency’s environmental remediation efforts; and NASA’s efforts to reduce unneeded infrastructure and facilities. Common themes throughout all of these reviews are slow implementation of corrective actions, inconsistent implementation of Agency policies, and a need for stronger life-cycle cost considerations in facility construction decisions.

NASA established the Technical Capabilities Assessment Team (TCAT) in June 2012 to assess the Agency’s technical capabilities (including infrastructure and personnel resources) and make recommendations for investing in, consolidating, or eliminating capabilities based on mission requirements.50 In our April 2017 review of the undertaking, we found that after more than 4 years the Agency has yet to make many concrete decisions about its technical capabilities – for example, to consolidate or dispose of assets.51 Rather, most decisions have been iterative steps on the path to making actual determinations about technical capabilities, leaving us concerned that the Agency’s efforts have been slow to produce meaningful results.

Moreover, NASA’s assessments of its capabilities did not consistently include information needed to make informed decisions, including mission needs or facility usage data, analyses to determine gaps or overlaps, recommendations to achieve cost savings, or firm timeframes for completing actions. The Agency must be willing to make difficult decisions to invest, divest, or consolidate unneeded infrastructure; effectively communicate those decisions to stakeholders; and withstand the inevitable pressures from Federal, state, and local officials to retain capabilities and structures “just in case.”

In another example, in May 2017, we reported on NASA’s construction of two test stands at Marshall Space Flight Center and found that inadequate planning for the effort ultimately increased costs.52 NASA built two test stands to test the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanks from the core stage of the SLS rocket. To meet schedule commitments, test stand design and construction began before tank design was finalized. In addition, NASA paid the contractor a premium of $7.6 million for the additional labor needed to work around-the-clock to meet the ambitious schedule.

Subsequently, when the project’s requirements matured, NASA needed an additional $20.3 million to make modifications to the original test stand designs. In addition, because NASA failed to establish adequate funding reserves to cover these increased costs, project officials had to secure $35.5 million in additional funding over the planned budget. Finally, NASA did not adequately consider alternative locations before selecting Marshall as the site for the new test stands and therefore cannot be sure it made the most cost effective decision.

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50 To institutionalize capability management into its annual planning and budgeting processes, NASA replaced TCAT with the Capability Leadership Model (CLM) in 2015. CLM is designed to advance NASA’s technical capabilities to meet long-term missions, optimize deployment of capabilities across its major facilities, and transition capabilities no longer needed.

51 NASA OIG, “NASA’s Efforts to ‘Rightsize’ its Workforce, Facilities, and Other Supporting Assets” (IG-17-015, March 21, 2017).

52 NASA OIG, “Construction of Test Stands 4693 and 4697 at Marshall Space Flight Center” (IG-17-021, May 17, 2017).

  • mike_shupp

    Why do I have the strange feeling that ANY time NASA spends several million dollars at Marshall SFC, Congress will regard it as a “cost effective decision”?

  • windbourne

    Hopefully, as private space takes off, CONgress will help re-innovate NASA, including their infrastructure.