NASA OIG Review of NASA's Selection of Display Locations for the Space Shuttle Orbiters


image NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin today released a report that examined NASA's process for choosing permanent display locations for the retired Space Shuttle Orbiters and whether NASA complied with federal law or was improperly influenced by political considerations in its decision making.

In April 2011, NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. announced that the Orbiters would be awarded to the following facilities:

- Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia;
- California Science Center in Los Angeles;
- Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Central Florida; and
- Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.

The Administrator's decision, while greeted with excitement at the chosen locations, was not well received in some quarters, particularly by members of Congress and others who supported Space Center Houston in Houston, Texas, and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (Air Force Museum) in Dayton, Ohio. Members of these groups raised concerns that in making its selections NASA failed to follow the law or allowed politics to dictate the result. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) review examined these complaints and a variety of other issues related to placement of the Orbiters.

As NASA's 30-year Space Shuttle Program drew to a close, the Agency solicited input from organizations interested in obtaining a retired Orbiter. NASA sought to save money by awarding the Orbiters to institutions willing to reimburse the $28 million cost to prepare, display, and transport them to their new homes. In total, NASA received responses from 29 educational institutions, science museums, and other organizations.

We found that Administrator Bolden's selections resulted from an Agency-created process that emphasized, above all other considerations, locating the Orbiters in places where the most people would have the opportunity to view them. The Agency was not required to and did not consider a location's ties to the Space Shuttle Program but, as directed by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, considered whether the chosen locations had a connection to NASA's human spaceflight program. The Agency's decision to place primary weight on three criteria - the applicants' attendance figures, regional population, and access to international visitors - was determinative in deciding which locations received Orbiters.

We found that the Agency assembled a team of civil servants who evaluated and ranked the applicants based on these criteria as well as several other factors including a location's ability to meet NASA's delivery schedule, its commitment to funding, and an evaluation of its existing facility. Based on these criteria, the team recommended to Bolden that the Orbiters be placed at the Smithsonian and the three locations that finished highest in the rankings (the report lists the team's rankings for the top 13 applicants). The Administrator accepted the team's recommendation.

However, the OIG found that the team made several errors during its evaluation process, including one not corrected before Bolden's announcement that would have resulted in a numerical "tie" among the Intrepid, the Kennedy Visitor Complex, and the Air Force Museum. In an interview with the OIG, Bolden said that had he been aware of this tie he would have made the same decision regarding Orbiter placement because the Air Force Museum was unable to commit to raising the necessary funds and because he believes the chosen locations will best serve NASA's goal to spur interest in science, technology, and space exploration.

We found no evidence that the Team's recommendation or the Administrator's decision were tainted by political influence or any other improper consideration. While the Administrator was subject to a great deal of pressure from members of Congress and other interested parties, we found no evidence that this pressure had any influence on his decision about where to place the Orbiters. In addition, we found no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden's decision making.

We also found that NASA's process was consistent with applicable Federal law, including the rules regarding disposal of excess Government property.

In addition, we found that for a variety of reasons, including concern about negative congressional reaction and possible interference with ongoing negotiations over NASA's budget and authorization bills, the Agency repeatedly delayed announcing which locations would receive an Orbiter. This delay shortened the timeframe available for the recipients to raise the funds required to reimburse the Agency for Orbiter display preparation and transportation costs.

Finally, although not the primary focus of our review, we found that the selected locations appear to be on track to raise the necessary funds, prepare facilities to house and display the Orbiters, and take delivery of the vehicles in accordance with NASA's schedule. That said, we also found that NASA will need to deftly manage a series of challenges as it works with these institutions to complete the process of readying and transporting the Orbiters to their new homes.

The full report can be found on the OIG's website at http://oig.nasa.gov/ under "Reading Room" or at the following link: http://oig.nasa.gov/audits/reports/FY11/Review_NASAs_Selection_Display_Locations.pdf

Please contact Renee Juhans at (202) 358-1712 if you have questions.

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.