Space Station:

Delays in Dealing With Space Debris May Reduce Safety and Increase Costs

IMTEC-92-50: Published: Jun 2, 1992. Publicly Released: Jun 2, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO evaluated the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) progress in its: (1) incorporation of the current estimate of the debris environment into space station requirements; (2) effort to keep the debris environment model current; and (3) overall strategy to protect the station from space debris of various sizes.

GAO found that: (1) most current NASA designs to protect the space station and crew from debris are outdated, since they rely on a 1984 model of the space environment, which underestimates the increasing amount of debris the space station will encounter; (2) although NASA has instructed its space centers to incorporate a 1991 model into their designs, the centers have not yet implemented the change, as it will negatively affect design, cost, and scheduling; (3) the overall NASA protection strategy for space debris is insufficient; (4) before NASA completes critical design reviews in early 1993, it must make decisions regarding tradeoffs between costs to protect the station, possible scheduling delays, and acceptable risks to station safety; and (5) NASA has been working with other space-faring nations to avoid further debris creation, and has made progress in estimating the current and future severity of the debris problem.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to provide the best protection possible for the Space Station Freedom and its crew, the Administrator, NASA, should delay the completion of critical design review until the 1991 model of the debris environment is fully implemented.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA informed Congress on August 28, 1992 that the 1991 model was fully implemented.

    Recommendation: In order to provide the best protection possible for the Space Station Freedom and its crew, the Administrator, NASA, should delay the completion of critical design review until any changes to NASA debris safety criteria are thoroughly assessed.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA agreed that any changes to safety criteria would be assessed by independent review teams.

    Recommendation: In order to provide the best protection possible for the Space Station Freedom and its crew, the Administrator, NASA, should delay the completion of critical design review until NASA develops a comprehensive strategy for dealing with debris, including: (1) shielding and augmentation plans for small debris, including an assessment of the costs and operational impact of proposed augmentation designs; and (2) protection concepts for medium and large debris.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NASA plans to independently assess, four months before critical design reviews, NASA plans to independently assess the overall strategy for dealing with debris. NSAS is completely downscoping the space station.

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