NASA Audit Says CASIS Under Performing on Key ISS Research Tasks

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The organization NASA hired to manage research aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has seriously under performed on the majority of its tasks, a new  audit from space agency’s Inspector General finds.

“Of the nine performance categories we assessed, CASIS met expectations in only two: research pathways and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education,” the report states. “For example, the STEM education performance category required CASIS to increase interest in using the National Lab as a platform for STEM education. CASIS met expectations for this performance category by funding 14 STEM education programs in FY 2016 with more than 325,000 participants.”

NASA awarded CASIS a 10-year, $136 million contract to manage non-agency research aboard the station. The agreement has since been extended to 2024, which is the current end date for ISS operations.

The audit states that CASIS partially met expectations for five categories and failed to meet them in two others.

“For example, in the grant awards and project portfolio performance category, CASIS awarded more than $3 million annually in research grants between FYs 2013 and 2016 but failed to ensure a balanced portfolio of research projects from theoretical to basic to applied research as required by the cooperative agreement,” according to the report.

“CASIS failed to meet expectations in the remaining two categories: utilization of crew time for National Lab research and outreach,” the document adds. “With respect to crew utilization, between September 2013 and April 2017 CASIS was allocated 2,915 crew research hours on the National Lab, but CASIS-managed projects used only 1,537 (52.7 percent) of these hours.

“Although CASIS officials attributed the organization’s limited success in this area to three failed ISS resupply missions in FY 2015, given its performance to date, CASIS utilization rates for the National Lab will likely further diminish when NASA adds an additional crew member to the Station in late 2018,” the report says.

The IG audit also criticized NASA for a “hands-off” management approach in which it has failed to provide guidance and establish expectations and goals for CASIS. The report said the space agency had been lax in accepting the center’s slow improvement since it was awarded the contract.

The report indicates there is disagreement between IG auditors and NASA officials overseeing CASIS on what criteria to use in evaluating its progress.

“Agency management took exception with our methodology that assessed CASIS’s performance in nine categories, stating that CASIS’s performance should only be reviewed against the operating model defined by the cooperative agreement,” the report states. “Moreover, in response to our recommendation concerning CASIS fundraising, the Agency explicitly stated that CASIS is not required to raise non-NASA funds to offset its operating expenses and declined to indicate if or when it plans to reassess the issue.”

The IG said that in its audit, the office went beyond the performance metrics in the cooperative agreement between NASA and CASIS, which it found to be vague.

“For example, expectations for CASIS fundraising are documented in NASA’s July 2011 decision memorandum; NASA’s Strategic Plan and its annual CASIS assessment letters provide support for CASIS’s role in contributing to the development of an economy in low Earth orbit; and annual assessment letters illustrate the Agency’s interest in CASIS broadening its use of Implementation Partners,” the report reads. “In addition, we believe fundraising should be a key Agency expectation for CASIS, which is the genesis of our recommendation that NASA ‘establish goals for CASIS raising non-NASA funds to offset operating expenses.’”

The results in brief section of the report is reproduced below.

NASA’s Management of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space
NASA Office of the Inspector General
Report No. IG-18-010
January 11, 2018

[Full Report]

Results in Brief

Why We Performed This Audit

Since 1993, the United States has spent approximately $87 billion to build and operate the International Space Station (ISS or Station), and is projected to spend between $3 and $4 billion annually to support the Station’s operations through 2024. In August 2011, the Agency awarded a 10-year, $136 million cooperative agreement to the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to manage non-NASA research activities on the U.S. portion of the ISS known as the National Laboratory (National Lab). In July 2017, NASA extended the CASIS cooperative agreement to September 2024, increasing its total cost to $196 million.

In prior reports we raised concerns about CASIS’s performance and its challenges spurring commercial and non-Government research on the ISS. Specifically, in 2013 we found that fostering a commercial interest in ISS-based research and recruiting users for the National Lab remained a significant challenge for CASIS. Further more, in 2014 we found that NASA and CASIS continued to face challenges maximizing ISS research capabilities and that much of the ISS’s future success as a research platform for non-Government entities hinged on CASIS’s ability to attract sufficient funding from private users.

Given NASA’s investment in and the importance of the National Lab, together with issues raised in our prior reports, we initiated this audit to examine CASIS’s progress in meeting its performance goals and assess the quality of NASA’s oversight of the organization. To complete this work, we reviewed performance plans, annual reports, and other documentation; interviewed CASIS and NASA officials; and conducted surveys of CASIS programs and National Lab users.

What We Found

Although CASIS awarded $21.7 million in grants to 140 projects between fiscal years (FY) 2013 and 2016, the organization has underperformed on tasks important to achieving NASA’s goal of building a commercial space economy in low Earth orbit. From 2011 through 2014, CASIS concentrated on standing up its organization and filling leadership positions. Consequently, after more than 5 years of operation CASIS has not fully met a majority of the goals and expectations set out by NASA. Of the nine performance categories we assessed, CASIS met expectations in only two: research pathways and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. For example, the STEM education performance category required CASIS to increase interest in using the National Lab as a platform for STEM education. CASIS met expectations for this performance category by funding 14 STEM education programs in FY 2016 with more than 325,000 participants.

For five of the remaining seven performance categories – grant awards and project portfolio, recruitment of National Lab users, matching research projects and investors, Implementation Partners, and fundraising – CASIS only partially met expectations. For example, in the grant awards and project portfolio performance category, CASIS awarded more than $3 million annually in research grants between FYs 2013 and 2016 but failed to ensure a balanced portfolio of research projects from theoretical to basic to applied research as required by the cooperative agreement. CASIS failed to meet expectations in the remaining two categories: utilization of crew time for National Lab research and outreach. With respect to crew utilization, between September 2013 and April 2017 CASIS was allocated 2,915 crew research hours on the National Lab, but CASIS-managed projects used only 1,537 (52.7 percent) of these hours. Although CASIS officials attributed the organization’s limited success in this area to three failed ISS resupply missions in FY 2015, given its performance to date, CASIS utilization rates for the National Lab will likely further diminish when NASA adds an additional crew member to the Station in late 2018.

In addition, we found NASA failed to actively oversee CASIS’s technical performance and instead took a largely “hands-off” approach to managing CASIS that has contributed to the organization’s inability to meet expectations. For example, NASA has not developed an overall strategy identifying the achievements or outcomes expected from CASIS through the end of its cooperative agreement nor has the Agency provided guidance or set expectations for CASIS’s performance. Instead, NASA has accepted CASIS’s slow improvement over the first 5 years of the cooperative agreement without requiring corrective action plans or offering suggestions to improve performance. Although FY 2016 marked the first year CASIS’s performance plan included metrics and quantifiable targets for several performance categories, these metrics and targets were not included for all performance categories.

What We Recommended

NASA acknowledges that CASIS plays an important role in helping promote a commercial economy in low Earth orbit, but the Agency needs to increase its oversight of the organization’s performance. To help improve the effectiveness of NASA’s cooperative agreement with CASIS, we made seven recommendations to the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, including four recommendations specific to improving the research pathways, grant awards and project portfolio, Implementation Partners, and fundraising performance categories. We also recommended that the Associate Administrator develop a performance strategy for CASIS through the end of the cooperative agreement in 2024, evaluate CASIS’s performance semiannually, and ensure performance plans include metrics and targets for all performance categories.

In response to a draft of this report, NASA management concurred or partially concurred with our recommendations and described its planned actions. However, in its response, Agency management took exception with our methodology that assessed CASIS’s performance in nine categories, stating that CASIS’s performance should only be reviewed against the operating model defined by the cooperative agreement. Moreover, in response to our recommendation concerning CASIS fundraising, the Agency explicitly stated that CASIS is not required to raise non-NASA funds to offset its operating expenses and declined to indicate if or when it plans to reassess the issue.

As noted in our report, we did not limit our audit solely to whether CASIS complied with the terms of its cooperative agreement; instead, since metrics within the agreement are decidedly vague, we also evaluated the organization’s performance against other Agency expectations. For example, expectations for CASIS fundraising are documented in NASA’s July 2011 decision memorandum; NASA’s Strategic Plan and its annual CASIS assessment letters provide support for CASIS’s role in contributing to the development of an economy in low Earth orbit; and annual assessment letters illustrate the Agency’s interest in CASIS broadening its use of Implementation Partners. In addition, we believe fundraising should be a key Agency expectation for CASIS, which is the genesis of our recommendation that NASA “establish goals for CASIS raising non-NASA funds to offset operating expenses.” However, NASA management’s comments – although labeled as “concur” – are unresponsive to the recommendation; therefore, this recommendation remains unresolved pending further discussion with Agency officials. In light of management’s response to the other six recommendations, those are resolved and will be closed upon verification and completion of the proposed corrective actions.

  • Robert G. Oler

    this is a surprise…not NASA does not want CASIS to work and they are not really set up to work well…its all a show