NASA: Briefing on National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Programs and Associated Activities

Status Report From: Government Accountability Office
Posted: Friday, October 16, 2009

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United States Government Accountability Office: Washington, DC 20548:

October 15, 2009:

Congressional Requesters:

Subject: NASA: Briefing on National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Programs and Associated Activities:

The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, as amended, established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the civilian agency that exercises control over U.S. aeronautical and space activities and seeks and encourages the fullest commercial use of space.[Footnote 1] NASA's activities span a broad range of complex and technical endeavors, from investigating the composition, evaluation, and resources of Mars; to working with international partners to complete and operate the International Space Station; to providing satellite and aircraft observations of Earth for scientific and weather forecasting; to developing new technologies designed to improve air flight safety. The agency currently engages in these endeavors against a backdrop of growing national government fiscal imbalance and budget deficits that are straining all federal agencies' resources. Although NASA's budget represents less than 2 percent of the federal government's discretionary budget, the agency is increasingly being asked to expand its portfolio to support important scientific missions, including the study of climate change. Therefore, it is important that these resources be managed as effectively and efficiently as possible.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008 (Pub. L. No. 110-422)--directed us to review whether NASA's programs and associated activities with a fiscal year 2009 funding level over $50 million--are duplicative with other activities of the federal government. We briefed the committees on the results of our review, and this letter summarizes that briefing, including our scope and methodology, which is reprinted in full as enclosure I. As agreed to by the committees, this concludes our work performed under this mandate.


We identified 33 of 38 NASA programs that meet the mandate's $50 million threshold. These programs represent about 81 percent of NASA's fiscal year 2009 budget and support 226 projects, each of which may consist of numerous types of research and related activities. We focused on three areas within --Science, Aeronautics Research, and Education--for review and excluded other activities such as space operations and exploration missions that are unique to NASA. We judgmentally selected projects and activities from each of the three areas and compared them against similar activities in other organizations. We found no apparent duplication among the selected projects or activities. Although we did not look at all programs within NASA, policies, procedures and mechanisms are in place that facilitate the avoidance of duplication by engaging in collaboration and coordination between NASA and other federal agencies. For example, NASA coordinates its work with other agencies by participating in formal groups such as the National Science and Technology Council and various interagency working groups. The Office of Federal Coordinator for Meteorological Services and Supporting Research, in conjunction with NASA and other federal agencies, facilitated the development of the Interagency Strategic Research Plan for Tropical Cyclones, which provides the strategy for improving the effectiveness of severe-weather forecasts and warnings through strategic coordination and collaboration among the major players working in meteorology research and development. NASA's Quarterly Roundtable with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides opportunities for the agencies' leadership to discuss efforts, resolve issues, conduct joint strategic planning and leverage resources. NASA also participates on the Fixed- Wing Executive Council with the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Office of Secretary of Defense. The council meets with industry three times a year to collaborate on strategies for meeting warfighter needs. To provide a forum for dialogue about issues related to aeronautics research, NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program convenes the Fundamental Aeronautics Annual Meeting, attended by researchers and members of other federal agencies and departments.

NASA also has established many memorandums of understanding with other federal agencies that mitigate duplication and assist in the coordination of activities. For example, the agency's memorandum of understanding with the National Science Foundation facilitates collaboration between the two agencies by coordinating their education efforts. The memorandum outlines each agency's roles and responsibilities, areas for collaboration, and how to obtain resources and agency expertise. NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate participates in multiple agreements with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Air Force, and other federal agencies to coordinate efforts in aeronautics research and to facilitate the free exchange of information, reduce duplication, share resources, and assist with long- term planning.

There are laws, policies, and procedures in place to help NASA avoid duplicating the efforts of other federal agencies. The National Aeronautics and Space Act directs that aeronautical and space activities shall be conducted in ways to most effectively utilize scientific and engineering resources, with close cooperation among all interested agencies in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment. Furthermore, NASA's Governance and Strategic Management Handbook provides process-related checks and balances ranging from peer reviews conducted at the lowest level to oversight reviews conducted by the agency's Program Management Council. [Footnote 2] NASA's procedural requirements for spaceflight programs and projects require project teams, in the early phases of each project, to assess opportunities for using technology developed by other government agencies, academia, and the commercial sector. [Footnote 3] Teams must also take into account opportunities to use the infrastructure and workforce in other government agencies, industry, academia, and international organizations. Similarly, for other research and technology programs and projects NASA's procedural requirements recommend searches of the research and technology literature prior to investments in new research areas in order to minimize duplication of effort and to look for opportunities to augment research and technology from other agencies.[Footnote 4] The procedures also require: assessments of related technology development activities in other NASA programs, other agencies, and the commercial sector in order to eliminate duplication and program status reviews and independent assessments.

Agency Comments:

We provided a draft of the enclosed briefing to NASA officials for their review and comment. On October 6, 2009, NASA provided technical comments and stated that they generally agreed with the information presented.

Scope and Methodology:

To assess policies and procedures in place to ensure that NASA's programs and activities are not duplicative of similar efforts within the federal government, we reviewed NASA policies and procedures used to manage and coordinate program activity and interviewed officials responsible for developing and implementing those policies. Also, we interviewed NASA officials responsible for managing partnerships and policy interactions between NASA and other executive branch offices and agencies. We reviewed background information related to the mission and activities of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science and Technology Council to determine their role in coordinating programs and projects. To obtain additional perspectives on the effectiveness of coordination of research within the federal government, we interviewed an official from the National Science Foundation.

To identify NASA programs and activities, if any, that appear to have a similar scope and purpose to other federal programs, we identified 33 of 38 programs in NASA's fiscal year 2009 budget estimates that met the $50 million threshold in the statutory mandate. These 33 NASA programs support 226 projects, each of which may consist of numerous types of research and related activities. However, we excluded programs and activities from the Space Operations Mission Directorate, Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, and cross-agency support activities because their activities are unique to NASA.

From the Education, Aeronautics Research, and Science Directorates, we judgmentally selected for in depth review (1) Higher Education STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), (2) Fundamental Aeronautics-Subsonic Fixed Wing, and (3) Earth Science projects related to weather research. We selected these three areas because they represent a range of programs and activities across NASA, appear to engage in activities similar to those conducted by other federal agencies, and have the largest funding levels within each area.

To determine if these three areas are duplicative with other federal programs, we reviewed detailed information regarding selected areas and compared it to other activities across the federal government. Specifically, for Higher Education STEM we reviewed NASA's fiscal year 2009 higher education portfolio and compared it to the descriptions of other federal agency programs. For Fundamental Aeronautics and Earth Science selected projects, we compared them to descriptions of programs contained in the budget estimates for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and/or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We also identified relevant coordinating bodies and reviewed the applicable Program Assessment Rating Tool reports because they include evaluations of possible duplications of any other federal, state, local, or private efforts. We interviewed program officials about formal and informal mechanisms for coordinating with other government agencies. The results of our analysis cannot be projected across NASA programs. Although we identified various coordination mechanisms across the federal government, we did not assess the effectiveness of these mechanisms.

We conducted this performance audit from March 2009 to October 2009 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

We are sending copies of this letter and briefing to the NASA Administrator and other interested congressional committees. In addition, these documents will be available at no charge on GAO's Web site at [hyperlink,].

If you or your staff have any questions, please contact me at (202) 512- 4841 or Contact points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on the last page of this letter. GAO staff who made contributions to this project are listed in enclosure II.

Signed by:

Cristina T. Chaplain:
Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management:

Enclosures - 2:

List of Requesters:

The Honorable John D. Rockefeller IV:
The Honorable Kay Bailey Hutchison:
Ranking Member:
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation:
United States Senate:

The Honorable Bart Gordon:
The Honorable Ralph M. Hall:
Ranking Member:
Committee on Science and Technology:
House of Representatives:

The Honorable Gabrielle Giffords:
The Honorable Pete Olson:
Ranking Member:
Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Committee on Science and
House of Representatives:

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