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GAO: NASA's Ability to Meet Future Deep Space Communications Demand Is at Risk

Press Release From: Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democratic Caucus
Posted: Monday, May 22, 2006

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Full report (PDF)

Washington, D.C. -- In a report released today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN)-the agency's primary system for communicating with spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit-is not well positioned to meet the coming demands of the Vision for Exploration and future deep space science missions. 

The GAO report concluded that "NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) is able to meet most of the requirements of its current workload, but serious questions exist as to whether it will be able to keep up with both near-term and future demands."

The GAO study was requested by U.S. House Committee on Science Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Ranking Member Mark Udall (D-CO) due to concerns about the future viability of the DSN, which has been servicing NASA missions since 1959.

"We have rewritten our textbooks on the solar system with the pictures and data that have been captured by the antennas of the DSN.  The stunning vistas Mars Rover Spirit sent back from the summit of Husband Hill, the volcanoes of Io, and Cassini's pictures of the geysers on Enceladus and the frozen surface of Titan - we see them thanks to the DSN.  GAO has given us a wake-up call that a vital national asset is at risk - one that will be critical to the success both of NASA's future deep space science missions as well as the President's Vision for Space Exploration," stated Rep. Udall in response to the report's findings.

In its report, GAO found that the DSN has a "deteriorating infrastructure and a limited capacity to serve additional missions.  System infrastructure, which has been marked by extensive deferred maintenance, is aging and is likely to become increasingly fragile and subject to breakdown at a time when demand is anticipated to increase.  The potential exists for the loss of scientific data that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace."  

Further, the GAO noted that implementation of the President's Vision for Space Exploration will generate substantial communications demands.  However, the GAO reported that NASA has not clarified the role DSN will play in that effort, nor what resources will be required to address the communications requirements of the human exploration initiative.

Equally troubling, the GAO found that "DSN's future utility is also in question because NASA currently has no mechanism in place to match funding for space communications capabilities with agency-wide space communications requirements."

In their report, GAO recommended to NASA that the DSN program clearly identify its current and future requirements and develop a comprehensive plan and associated cost estimates to address them.  GAO also made a number of recommendations to NASA on better alignment of DSN program needs with overall agency space communications goals for the future. 

Rep. Udall concluded, "I am encouraged that NASA concurs with many of the GAO's recommendations.  However, NASA will need to take concrete steps-including allocating sufficient resources-to ensure that those recommendations are implemented and the health of the DSN is maintained."

To obtain a copy of the full report, please visit the Science Democrat's website at http://sciencedems.house.gov/publications/requested_reports_detail.aspx?NewsID=1122.

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