It is my pleasure to submit this semiannual report on activities of the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the period April 1-September 30, 2008.
During this period, this Office completed numerous audit and investigative activities reflecting successful execution of the OIG mission to promote the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of NASA and to prevent and detect crime, fraud, waste, and abuse. Our activities addressed a diverse range of issues, with particular reference to areas that constitute performance and management challenges facing the Agency.
NASA's most pressing management and performance challenge continues to be the transition from the Space Shuttle to the next generation of space vehicles. In this regard, NASA's new authorization legislation directs the Agency to conduct two scheduled Shuttle contingency flights and one additional mission. NASA's philosophy has been to have "the last flight as safe" as the first flight after return to flight. While the authorization language puts responsibility on the Administrator to abort the additional mission if it is not safe to fly, safety is incremental and fluid, not fixed. For example, as hardware becomes scarce, program risk tolerance may expand due to less flexibility in flight hardware decisions.
Also, pursuant to its new authorization legislation, NASA is to terminate or suspend until April 30, 2009, any action that would prevent the Shuttle from flying beyond 2010. This provision would provide a new Administration some time to consider extending the Shuttle program while preventing further erosion in the program's capability to fly beyond 2010. Continuing Space Shuttle operations beyond the scheduled missions is inconsistent with the President's Vision for Space Exploration and the transition plan that NASA has executed for almost 5 years, which were dependent on the Shuttle retiring in 2010. In 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) concluded that "recertification . . . is essential if the Shuttle is to continue operating for another 10 to 20 years." The CAIB's recommendation was that the Agency, "[p]rior to operating the Shuttle beyond 2010, develop and conduct a vehicle recertification at the material, component, subsystem, and system levels." While NASA made many improvements to the Shuttle over the past 5 years, the in-depth and costly processes associated with recertification have not been undertaken because the plan has been to end the program by 2010. Continuing to operate the Shuttle with its 30-year-old technology beyond 2010 could expose NASA to unknown technical, safety, and financial risk.
The results of our activities reflected in this report address project management; safety; acquisition management, to include reviews and audits of budget and financial processes; information technology security; fraud; conflicts of interest; and other crimes and misconduct. Some of the specific topics addressed include opportunities to enhance the budgeting processes for the Constellation Program, actions needed to improve security at a NASA Center, potential cost savings in test operations contracts for rocket propulsion systems, and a recommendation concerning the controversial National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service Project. We also completed investigations involving NASA employees and contractors that resulted in disciplinary actions, convictions, prison sentences, fines, and restitution. Among these were investigations that addressed safety inspections for a NASA aircraft, the misuse and theft of Government property, conflicts of interest and embezzlement.
I emphasize work in two particular areas. First, in June, the NASA OIG issued its investigative and audit reports concerning the alleged manipulation of scientific research by public affairs officials at NASA. The investigative summary identified numerous actions that "reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized" information regarding climate change science. The report considered the very complex role of public affairs officials charged with simultaneously advancing the policies of the Administration while fulfilling the requirements of the Space Act and NASA policy to disseminate scientific and technical information; in the end, the requirement for NASA to provide "the widest practical and appropriate dissemination" of scientific information must prevail if there is conflict between the two. The audit report identified the opportunity to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the process for reviewing scientific and technical information for public release by developing an automated, Agency-wide tracking system and ensuring compliance with existing requirements.
Second, we conducted work that reflects on the challenges NASA faces in avoiding potential conflicts of interest given its complex relationship with aerospace contractors. Specifically, our work disclosed that some of the experts that NASA relied on for independent technical advice through review boards have, through their employers, interests associated with the very projects on which the Agency seeks advice. In response to our work, the Agency is addressing the challenge of obtaining the independent advice it needs from the relatively small community of scientists and engineers who are qualified to provide it in a manner that is free from conflicts.
I believe this report fairly summarizes our audits and investigations and demonstrates the breadth and quality of our work, as well as the value that our products and services bring to NASA, Congress, and the public.
Robert W. Cobb