Confirmation of Political Appointees: Eliciting Nominees' Views on Management Challenges within Agencies and across Government (NASA Excerpt)

Status Report From: Government Accountability Office
Posted: Monday, November 24, 2008


GAO-09-194, November 17.

Full report

Appendix XX: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research. Its activities span a broad range of complex and technical endeavors such as investigating and evaluating the composition and resources of Mars and working with its international partners to complete and operate the International Space Station, developing a new series of space flight vehicles capable of carrying humans to space, providing satellite and aircraft observations of Earth for scientific and weather forecasting, and developing new technologies designed to improve air flight safety. In order to continue with these activities and meet future goals, NASA requested $17.6 billion for its fiscal year 2009 budget. NASA is organized under four mission directorates--Aeronautics Research, Exploration Systems, Science, and Space Operations--which provide direction and oversight of the agency's research and development programs. Its programs and projects are executed by nine centers located around the country, and the contractor-operated Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition, NASA partners with academia, the private sector, state and local governments, other federal agencies, and a number of international organizations.

NASA is currently at a crossroad. In response to President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, the agency is in the midst of phasing out the Space Shuttle Program and beginning another major undertaking, the Constellation Program, which will create the next generation of spacecraft for human spaceflight. This is NASA's biggest transition effort since landing humans on the moon more than three decades ago and then initiating the Space Shuttle Program a few years later. Moreover, it is expected ultimately to cost nearly $230 billion over the next two decades. Numerous people, hardware, and infrastructures will be affected by coming changes. There are also pressures for funds to be spent on other projects, which poses a financing challenge for the agency.

Retiring the Space Shuttle

  1. A decision must be made soon on whether to retire the space shuttle in 2010, as currently planned, or to extend its life in view of limited options for supporting the International Space Station. What are the consequences to the future of U.S. human spaceflight if the Space Shuttle program is extended? What are the important steps that need to be taken if a decision is made to continue operating the Space Shuttle?
  2. NASA will have to spend considerable funds on the transition from the Space Shuttle Program to the Constellation Program, so it may have to delay or take dollars away from other programs or ask Congress for more funds to cover these activities. Do you have any experience in shutting down a major project or program? What actions or steps are key to implementing a successful exit strategy?
  3. Currently, the nation is facing a gap in human space flight until at least 2015. Moreover, NASA could face a loss of critical skills, suppliers, and technological edge due to the retirement of the space shuttle. What in your background prepares you to cope with these types of challenges?

Balancing NASA's Investments in Programs

  1. NASA's workforce comprises about 18,700 civil servants at various centers across the country. Can you describe what role you have previously played in managing a highly skilled technical workforce?
  2. Overall, NASA's programs and projects continue to have significant cost growth and schedule delays. Have you ever been responsible for long-term project development? Was it completed within estimated cost and timelines? What major project-implementation challenges have you encountered and how have you addressed them?
  3. In addition to managing work at multiple NASA centers, NASA works with academia, the private sector, state and local governments, other federal agencies, and a number of international organizations. Are you

Completing and Sustaining the International Space Station

  1. NASA plans to finish assembling the International Space Station in fiscal year 2010 and operate the station until 2016. How has your prior work prepared you to manage a multibillion-dollar project with multiple international partners?
  2. NASA is working with the commercial space sector to develop and produce transport vehicles that can take equipment and, ultimately, crew to and from the space station during the gap between the Space Shuttle and the Orion Crew Launch Vehicle. What skills could you bring to encourage greater participation by the aerospace industry in developing private orbital transportation services to send cargo and transport crews to the International Space Station?

Developing the Next Generation of Human Spaceflight Systems

  1. The Constellation program faces challenges in developing the next generation of human-rated space craft capable of carrying humans to space. Continued uncertainty about the Orion and Ares I vehicles' requirements have led to considerable unknowns as to whether NASA's plans for these vehicles can be executed within scheduled time goals, as well as what these efforts will ultimately cost. What qualifications do you have that would suggest you may be able to help rein in some of this uncertainty and reduce the risk of cost growth and schedule slippage? What are the important steps to consider for reducing the development problems experienced by these and other Constellation projects, such as Ares V and Altair?
  2. In order to minimize the Orion's weight, NASA used a process that zero-based the design of the vehicle. The zero-based design only met minimal mission requirements but was not safe for human flight. Beginning with the zero-based design of the Orion vehicle, NASA first added back the systems necessary to ensure crew safety and then conducted a series of engineering trade-offs to determine what other systems should be included to maximize the probability of mission success while minimizing the system's weight. Have you been involved in product development that involved trade-offs between cost and risks to program success? What specific principles or criteria should managers turn to when weighing such trade-offs, and how can costs be contained on improving spacecraft development without increasing risks to the program or crew safety?

Improving NASA's Financial Management Systems

  1. NASA has struggled to implement a modern financial management system that produces the kind of accurate and reliable information needed to manage its projects and programs and produce timely, reliable financial information for external reporting purposes. Could you describe what financial management experience you have had at other organizations that could help you ensure that NASA will produce auditable financial statements and implement a financial management system that can generate timely, accurate, and useful financial information?
  2. For years, GAO and others have reported that NASA does not maintain effective control over its largest asset categories--property, plant, equipment, and materials. How prepared are you to strengthen the agency's control and accountability over government-owned equipment? What in your management background has prepared you?
  3. NASA continues to rely largely on its contractors to identify and report property values for assets created at the contractors' facilities. Based on your experience, what would be the most important steps for NASA to take to ensure that contractors begin providing complete and accurate information related to contractor-created assets?

Point of Contact: Cristina Chaplain, Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management, (202) 512-484 or

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