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House Space Subcommittee Discusses Aging NASA Infrastructure

Aline D. McNaull
Number 145 - October 4, 2013  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The September 20 hearing in the House Science, Space, and Technology’s Space Subcommittee provided Members with an opportunity to review the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) efforts to manage its facilities and infrastructure.  Members on both sides of the aisle share a concern about NASA’s ability to manage these facilities in tight fiscal conditions and uncertain budgets.  Issues discussed at the hearing included the lack of a comprehensive exploration roadmap for NASA, management options to address infrastructure challenges at the agency, the lease of NASA’s Launch Complex 39A to the private sector, Space Florida’s acquisition of a NASA-owned site, NASA’s use of facilities to test rocket engines, the management of NASA wind tunnels, and the consolidation of arc jet facilities at Johnson Space Center and Ames Research Center. 

The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 required the development of a strategy to evolve toward the most efficient retention, sizing, and distribution of facilities, laboratories, test capabilities, and other infrastructure consistent with NASA's missions and mandates.” The Act also requires NASA’s Administrator to identify and remove “unneeded or duplicative infrastructure.” 
NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the National Academies have each reported on NASA’s infrastructure.  According to a hearing charter prepared by Republican committee staff, recent reports from NASA’s OIG determined that approximately 80 percent of NASA facilities are more than 40 years old and that maintenance costs for these facilities amount to more than $24 million per year.  The backlog of deferred maintenance costs total $2.19 billion.   

Recommendations from a National Academies 2012 report include:

“With respect to NASA centers: the administration and Congress should adopt regulatory and legislative reforms that would enable NASA to improve the flexibility of the management of its centers; and NASA should transform its network of field centers into an integrated system that supports its strategic plan and communications strategy and advances its strategic goals and objectives.”

During the hearing, Republican committee members expressed their concerns about the reported amount of unneeded infrastructure while the Democratic committee members voiced their concern about the state of the agency’s infrastructure due to declining funds and an uncertain budget environment.

Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) opened the hearing by noting the age of NASA’s infrastructure and the high deferred maintenance costs for the backlog of facilities needing repair.  He expressed that despite NASA’s efforts to establish an Agency Master Plan aimed at aligning infrastructure with NASA’s mission and other plans to address infrastructure challenges “NASA will continue to face challenges with right-sizing its infrastructure as long as it does not have a coherent and consistent roadmap for exploration.”  Palazzo expressed an interest in learning from the witnesses how NASA’s use of Enhance Use Lease agreements, Space Act Agreements and traditional leases are used.  He also wanted further information about which of these agreements were used for each facility and what was the level of effectiveness of the agency’s oversight in this process. 


Subcommittee Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) outlined her view of the issues NASA faces regarding its infrastructure management.  “NASA needs clear direction on its future, especially in human spaceflight and exploration, to help the agency leverage and optimize its infrastructure decisions and investments.  And the underutilization of assets, along with the poor state of NASA’s research labs, is in part a result of not giving NASA the resources it needs to implement the missions the nation is asking it to carry out.”  She suggested that the agency’s problems could be addressed by investing in NASA and enabling “its future as a 21st century space agency that will continue its remarkable successes while fostering our national innovation agenda.” 


Paul Martin, Inspector General of NASA expressed that “one way NASA could reduce its facilities maintenance costs would be to reduce the amount of unneeded infrastructure in its inventory.  However, to be successful in this effort NASA must move beyond its historic ‘keep it in case you need it’ approach of managing its facilities.”  He also discussed fluctuating and uncertain requirements, inadequate funding levels, agency culture and business practice and political pressure.  He mentioned that there is disparity between the agency’s infrastructure as well as mission-related needs and addressed the complex process of successfully rightsizing NASA. 


Richard Keegan, Associate Administrator of NASA emphasized that NASA has not ignored the circumstances of its facilities.  “In spite of budget challenges, NASA is making progress on its facility strategy….  NASA’s master planning process reflects significant progress toward the responsible stewardship of the agency’s physical infrastructure through forward-thinking, systemic strategic planning. As NASA works to implement its strategic infrastructure goals, the agency will continue to construct and operate only those assets required to conduct its programs, maintain core capabilities, and meet national responsibilities.”


Following the testimony, Palazzo asked whether there is a difference between NASA’s leasing authorities and the authorities used by other agencies.  Martin suggested that the first step to determining whether NASA should maintain a leasing agreement is for it to decide whether it wants to retain the facility for its future use.  In his view, NASA was not always determining the answer to this question.  Palazzo then asked witnesses to comment on a statement that NASA needs a roadmap to determine what facilities it needs.  Both witnesses agreed that a roadmap is needed.


Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) focused her question on NASA’s ability to work on environmental cleanup at the facilities as a part of NASA’s Environmental Compliance and Restoration program.  Martin recommended, regarding NASA’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory, that the agency needs to clean the site for its expected future use.  She also pressed witnesses for a update on the status of cleanup for the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site.    

Subcommittee Members discussed the economic competitiveness of leasing decisions.  In addition, other issues included safety concerns on the consolidation of arc jets at NASA facilities.  A common theme in many hearings about NASA is whether going to the Moon was an appropriate step for Mars exploration and this hearing included a discussion on that decision as well.  While Members questioned witnesses about specific issues related to NASA infrastructure challenges, they clearly outlined their opinions about the direction, or lack thereof, of the agency. 

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
amcnaull@aip.org
301-209-3094