FYI #102 described a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report reviewing NASA's James Webb Space Telescope project. Another recent GAO report addressing NASA's plans to "down-select" to a single contractor to develop its shuttle replacement vehicle, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), is highlighted in this FYI, as is a June hearing exploring NASA's future workforce needs.
GAO REPORT ON NASA PLANS FOR CEV CONTRACTOR:
In July, the GAO issued a report warning that NASA's future budgets might be inadequate for implementation of President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, and criticizing NASA's plans to "down-select" to a single contractor for its Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) as early as September of this year. In the face of NASA's opposition to GAO's recommendations, the GAO report suggested that Congress might want to consider limiting the space agency's near-term appropriations for the project.
The report, "NASA: Long-Term Commitment to and Investment in Space Exploration Program Requires More Knowledge" (GAO-06-817R), states that "NASA will be challenged to implement the architecture" for its exploration initiative "within its projected budget." Based on the agency's projections of future budgets, the GAO says, "there are years when NASA does not have sufficient funding to implement the architecture...while in other years the funding available exceeds needed resources."
Because of funding concerns and the decision to implement the Vision through a "go as you can afford to pay" approach, GAO notes that it would be "prudent for NASA to establish a program that reduces the risk that significant additional funding...will be required." However, regarding the CEV program, it finds that "although NASA is committing to a long-term contract [in September 2006], it will not have the elements of a sound business case in place until the project level PDR [preliminary design review] in fiscal year 2008." This approach, it says, "increases the risk that the project will encounter significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and decreased capability."
The GAO report therefore recommends "that the NASA Administrator modify the current CEV acquisition strategy to ensure that the agency does not commit itself...to a long-term contractual obligation prior to establishing a sound business case at the project's preliminary design review." Based on NASA's "nonconcurrence" in response to this recommendation, the report further states that "we are including as a matter for congressional consideration that the Congress should consider restricting NASA's appropriations and obligations for the CEV program to only the amount of funding necessary to successfully complete the project's preliminary design review."
In a July 6 letter to the GAO (included with the report), Deputy NASA Administrator Shana Dale wrote that "NASA has the appropriate level of knowledge to proceed with its knowledge- and performance-based acquisition plan to ‘down-select' a single Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) prime contractor in September 2006." The letter adds that, having such knowledge, "NASA perceives no benefit in retaining two prime contractors through Preliminary Design Review (PDR) at an estimated cost of $1 billion each."
House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) commented that the GAO report "raises legitimate concerns about NASA's approach" and expressed his intention of holding hearings on the subject this fall, while Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) said, "the issues raised by the GAO are troubling.... We are already seeing important projects in science and aeronautics cancelled or delayed as a result of the Administration's decision to undertake an ambitious new Moon-Mars initiative without providing a budget for NASA equal to all the tasks it's been given. GAO's report indicates that if uncorrected, NASA's current approach to carrying out the initiative could lead to cost growth in the exploration program that will result in even further pressure on NASA's other core missions."
The full report is available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d06817r.pdf .
HEARING ON FUTURE NASA WORKFORCE:
More than thirty percent of current NASA employees are eligible for retirement, and less than 20 percent of the space agency's workforce is under 40 years old. At the same time, the agency estimates that it has over 800 employees that are not now being utilized to their full capacity. With an approaching "retirement bulge" in its workforce, the ramping up of the exploration initiative, and the need to transition emphasis from the shuttle program to the CEV, there is concern on Capitol Hill and within the agency about how to ensure NASA's future workforce is appropriate for its needs. At a June 13 hearing of the House Science Committee's Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA) inquired, "Does NASA have the right strategy and policies to retain and build the workforce it will need?"
"When you refocus work, when you redirect programs, you will have a certain skill set that you don't need any longer, and NASA does have that issue," Toni Dawsey, NASA's Assistant Administrator for Human Capital Management, testified. She added that the agency is exploring ways to retrain parts of its workforce, including rotational experiences, on the job training plans, mentoring and coaching programs.
NASA released a workforce strategy plan in April which is currently being reviewed by a National Research Council (NRC) committee. According to the NRC committee co-chair David Black, "Our committee's initial reaction to NASA's work done so far is that it is incomplete and reflects a top down view of what skill mixes are needed." Non-NASA witnesses urged the agency to maintain robust research programs in space and Earth science and aeronautics, saying that project delays and cancellations deterred young scientists and engineers from wanting to join the NASA workforce. "NASA will need to make decisions regarding how it can provide...a sense of hope and promise to potential future members of the agency's workforce," Black said. "Twenty years ago...the mere mention of NASA was an attractor. It had vocational pizzazz. That is no longer the case." He noted that NASA's unstable commitment to projects may already be leading university communities to steer students toward other career paths.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) argued that the excess workforce capacity NASA currently has on hand is a direct result of not fully funding its ongoing programs. "In other words," he said, the problem "is not because the skills of those employees are no longer needed. Rather, it appears to be the direct result of the administration's unwillingness to propose a NASA budget level sufficient to fund the additional demands imposed by the president's exploration initiative on NASA." Lee Stone of NASA's Ames Research Center said he "would fundamentally agree with [Honda's] assessment, that this is not a workforce crisis but a budget crisis."