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Before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Committee on Science 
and Technology, House of Representatives: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 


For Release on Delivery Expected at 10:00 a.m. EDT: 

Tuesday, July 24, 2007: 


Challenges in Completing and Sustaining the International Space 

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


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: 

I am pleased to be here today to discuss the challenges faced by the 
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on the 
International Space Station (ISS) and the Space Shuttle. NASA is in the 
midst of one of the most challenging periods in its history. As part of 
its Vision for Space Exploration, NASA is simultaneously developing a 
range of new technologies and highly complex systems to support future 
exploration efforts, completing assembly of the space station, and 
retiring the space shuttle. This is NASA's biggest transition effort 
since landing humans on the moon more than 3 decades ago and then 
initiating the Space Shuttle Program a few years later. Taken together, 
these efforts create significant challenges in terms of managing 
investments, launch and other facilities, workforce, international 
partners, and suppliers. Clearly, any delays or problems in completing 
and sustaining the space station itself, may well have reverberating 
effects on NASA's ability to ramp up efforts to develop technologies 
needed for future exploration or to support other important missions. 

GAO has undertaken a body of work related to NASA's transition efforts 
that include NASA's industrial supplier base, its workforce challenges, 
development of new crew and cargo spacecraft, and NASA's assembly and 
sustainment activities related to the ISS. My statement today focuses 
on the preliminary results of on-going efforts, as well as other GAO 
work completed to date. Specifically, I will address the following 
challenges: (1) executing plans to use the shuttle to complete the ISS; 
(2) maintenance of the shuttle workforce through retirement of the 
shuttle; and (3) filling the gap between the shuttle and new NASA- 
developed vehicles to service the ISS. NASA's ability to overcome these 
challenges will be critical to ensuring the availability of the 
International Space Station as a viable research entity into the 
future. While some of these results and findings are preliminary, many 
have been echoed in other studies and identified by NASA itself. Our 
work is being conducted in accordance with generally accepted 
government auditing standards. 


NASA plans to finish assembling the ISS in fiscal year 2010 and operate 
the station until 2016. The station is scheduled to support 6-person 
crew capability as early as 2009. The shuttle was to be the primary 
means for ISS re-supply and crew rotation. NASA's international 
partners were planning to augment the shuttle's capabilities with their 
cargo and crew spacecraft. Following the Columbia disaster in 2003, the 
President set a new "vision" for NASA that called for the shuttle's 
retirement in 2010 upon completing ISS assembly. As part of the Vision, 
NASA is developing new crew and cargo vehicles, with the crew vehicle 
currently scheduled to be available in the 2015 timeframe. One of the 
vehicles--the Crew Exploration Vehicle--will carry and support only 
crews traveling to low earth orbit and beyond and will also be capable 
of ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS. However, since these 
systems are not scheduled to become operational until 2015, NASA plans 
to rely on international partners and commercial providers to make up 
the 5-year gap in ISS logistics and crew rotation resulting from the 
shuttle retirement. 

Aggressive Launch Schedule for Space Shuttle: 

As we have begun our review of ISS assembly, several issues related to 
NASA's space shuttle manifest have come to our attention. First, the 
shuttle planning manifest dated January 2007 projects that NASA will 
launch 16 missions before retirement of the shuttle in 2010--one of 
those has already been launched. Of the 15 remaining missions, one will 
service the Hubble Telescope and 2 are designated as contingency 
missions. Assuming the contingency flights are included, on average, 
NASA will need to launch one shuttle every 2.7 months--an aggressive 
schedule when compared to recent launch timeframes. In the past, with 
three shuttles, NASA launched a shuttle every 3.7 months on average 
after the Challenger accident in 1986. Since the Columbia accident in 
2003, NASA has averaged 10.8 months between launches.[Footnote 1] For 
the remainder of calendar year 2007, NASA has three launches planned, 
which will total four missions for the year. Due to vehicle traffic 
constraints, the minimum required time between shuttle launches to ISS 
is 35 calendar days, so while the manifest is aggressive, it is 

Additionally, the current shuttle manifest leaves little room for 
unexpected delays caused by weather damage or launch debris, which have 
proven to impact the shuttle launch schedule significantly. For 
example, in 2007, hail damage to the external fuel tank caused an 
unexpected three month delay in a shuttle launch. While there are 
limits to the planning NASA can do for such events, the tight schedule 
constraints leave little room for significant delays as a result of 
such occurrences. 

As evidence of the increasing pressure NASA is experiencing with regard 
to the shuttle manifest, the ISS program office is planning for certain 
cargo elements to be launched on the two final shuttle flights even 
though NASA, as an agency, still considers these flights contingency 
missions. NASA is also being forced to consider the possibility of 
canceling delivery of some portions of the ISS. Specifically, NASA 
determined that if the schedule slips, the Cupola observatory and the 
Node 3 connector built for hardware, oxygen and waste storage may be 
slipped to contingency flights. If that occurs and those flights do not 
launch, those elements may not be assembled on ISS as originally 

Finally, NASA officials explained that since only the shuttle is large 
enough to deliver certain large Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs) to the 
ISS, they must be launched prior to retirement of the shuttle. These 
ORUs are replacement segments for those segments operating on the ISS 
that fail or reach the end of their life. The officials noted that NASA 
originally planned to use the shuttle to launch and retrieve certain 
large ORUs that are critical for ISS operations. After being brought 
back to Earth, the plan was to repair and refurbish the ORUs and return 
them to service on the ISS. However, with the shuttle no longer 
available to transport those ORUs after 2010, NASA changed its strategy 
for providing them to ISS from a refurbishment approach to a "launch 
and burn" approach. They suggested that under the new strategy, NASA 
would build enough ORUs to cover the ISS planned mission life and use 
them up over time. Large ORUs that originally were to be launched and 
returned on the shuttle would have to be pre-positioned on the ISS 
before the shuttle retires. 

There is still much to be worked out with NASA's change in strategy for 
positioning ORUs to cover the space station's planned mission life. For 
example, the program office is still assessing the implications of 
restarting production lines to produce additional spares. This involves 
examining whether the right equipment, materials, expertise, and data 
is still available--an endeavor that the ISS program office 
acknowledged would be challenging. We will continue to monitor changes 
to the shuttle manifest as they occur. 

Shuttle Workforce Challenges: 

The space shuttle workforce currently consists of approximately 2,000 
civil service and 15,000 contractor personnel. NASA must maintain a 
workforce with necessary critical skills to manage the shuttle program 
through its completion. In response to GAO recommendations, NASA has 
undertaken several initiatives to attempt to address its potential 
workforce drain. 

In 2005, we reported that NASA had made limited progress toward 
developing a detailed strategy for sustaining a critically skilled 
shuttle workforce to support space shuttle operations. We reported that 
significant delays in implementing a strategy to sustain the shuttle 
workforce would likely lead to larger problems, such as funding and 
failure to meet NASA program schedules. Accordingly, we concluded that 
timely action to address workforce issues is critical given their 
potential impact on NASA-wide goals such as closing the gap in human 
spaceflight. At the time we performed our work several factors hampered 
the ability of the Space Shuttle Program to develop a detailed long- 
term strategy for sustaining the critically skilled workforce necessary 
to support safe space shuttle operations through retirement. For 
example, the program's focus was on returning the shuttle to flight, 
and other efforts such as determining workforce requirements were 
delayed. In our report, we recommended that NASA begin identifying the 
Space Shuttle Program's future workforce needs based upon various 
future scenarios. Scenario planning could better enable NASA to develop 
strategies for meeting future needs. NASA concurred with our 
recommendation. The agency acknowledged that shuttle workforce 
management and critical skills retention will be a major challenge as 
it progresses toward retirement of the space shuttle and as such has 
acted to respond to our recommendation. 

For example, since we made our recommendation, NASA developed an agency 
wide strategic human capital plan and developed workforce analysis 
tools to assist it in identifying critical skills needs. NASA also 
developed a human capital plan specifically for sustaining the shuttle 
workforce through the retirement and, then transitioning the workforce. 
According to agency officials, currently NASA is mapping the available 
skills of the Space Shuttle workforce with the skills it will need for 
future work so that it can better plan and implement workforce 
reassignments. NASA's senior leaders recognize the need for an 
effective workforce strategy in order to sustain the shuttle workforce 
through the shuttle's retirement, which coincides with the completion 
of the ISS. Clear, strong executive leadership will be needed to ensure 
that the risks associated with the transition of the shuttle workforce 
are minimized. 

Filling the Gap between the Shuttle and New NASA-Developed Vehicles to 
Service the International Space Station: 

NASA has several options for filling the gap between the shuttle, which 
will retire in 2010 and new NASA-developed vehicles that are not 
expected to come on-line until 2015. The first relies on new vehicles 
developed within the U.S. commercial space sector. The second relies on 
vehicles developed by international partners--both new and legacy 
systems. There are considerable challenges with all options NASA is 

NASA Dependence on Commercial Development: 

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 
crew launch vehicle. Rather than buy these vehicles outright, NASA 
plans to help fund their development and purchase transportation 
services or perhaps even the vehicles themselves when they are needed. 
This program is known as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services 
(COTS). Currently, NASA has seven COTS agreements--all are in the 
initial phases of raising private funds for the development. NASA 
funding has been provided to two companies, Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) 
and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). NASA has signed five more 
Space Act Agreements which facilitates sharing technological 
information, but these agreements are unfunded by NASA. 

There are two phases to the COTS program, the first phase entails 
technical development and demonstration and the second phase may 
include the competitive procurement of orbital transportation services 
for ISS logistical support. NASA officials noted that both RpK and 
SpaceX met their first milestone to demonstrate financial progress by 
obtaining private funding. However, RpK missed its second milestone in 
May 31, 2007 and had to renegotiate its Space Act Agreement milestone 
with NASA. 

The International Space Station Independent Safety Task Force 
(IISTF)[Footnote 2] reported in February 2007 that the design, 
development, and certification of the new COTS capability for ISS re- 
supply was just beginning. IISTF stated that, "if similar to other new 
program development activities, it most likely will take much longer 
than expected and will cost more than anticipated." Our work has 
generally found space and other complex system development efforts-- 
including NASA-sponsored efforts--often encounter schedule delays and 
technical problems when they are seeking to obtain significant advances 
in technologies, move forward amid changing requirements or with other 
unknowns, and/or are managed without adequate oversight, In our 
opinion, risks may be high in these partnerships, given that the 
suppliers do not have long-standing relationships with NASA or other 
government agencies and the development of the COTS vehicles represent 
totally new endeavors for most of these companies. As such, it will be 
exceedingly important for NASA to establish sound program management 
and oversight controls over these endeavors, establish clear and 
consistent guidance, limit requirements changes, and ensure it has 
adequate visibility into the progress being made by the COTS suppliers. 
Our review will examine the extent to which these measures are being 
taken. As you know, GAO has identified contract management as a high 
risk area for NASA. Actions designed to enhance program management and 
oversight are being implemented, but it may take years to complete 
them. This may make it even more difficult for NASA to successfully 
manage and oversee its relationship with the COTS suppliers. If NASA 
relies on these development efforts without adequate oversight, the 
programs could fall short of cost and schedule estimates, result in 
downgraded performance, and ultimately impact overall sustainment of 
the ISS. 

NASA Dependence on International Partners: 

NASA has suggested that some supply activities during the gap can be 
conducted by vehicles under development or currently in operation by 
international partners--specifically, Europe, Japan and Russia--but 
these vehicles have constraints. Our ongoing review will assess these 
constraints in greater detail. 

To begin with, new vehicles being developed by the European and 
Japanese space agencies are very complex. Currently, the first test 
flight for the European vehicle is likely to happen in January 2008. 
The Japanese vehicle will not have its first operational flight until 
2009. According to NASA officials, both the European and Japanese 
vehicle developments experienced technical hurdles and budgetary 
constraints, but both partners are committed to fulfilling their roles 
as partners in the ISS program. They do have confidence that the 
European vehicle will be available for ISS operations before retirement 
of the shuttle, but they are not as confident about the Japanese 
vehicle being ready by that time. NASA reliance on these vehicles to 
augment re-supply activities after 2010 assumes that further delays in 
their development will not occur. NASA's expectation is that these 
vehicles will be developed in parallel with commercial developments. 
The agency's preference is to use commercially developed vehicles, 
rather than rely on the vehicles developed by the international 
partners to cover the capability gap after retirement of the shuttle 

NASA also plans to continue working with Russia to provide crew and 
cargo support to the ISS, but this has been facilitated through an 
exemption to the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act. 
Russian vehicles that were already operational were used to rotate crew 
and supply ISS during the period after the Columbia accident and a 
Russian Soyuz vehicle remains docked to the ISS continuously. The Iran, 
North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act exemption expires at the end 
of 2011, at which time any exchanges will be subject to the 
restrictions of the Act. However, if commercial development does not 
produce a usable vehicle by that date, the only vehicle that can 
support crew transportation is the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. According 
to NASA officials, the agency is planning to request a waiver to gain 
further exemption beyond 2011 if this situation occurs. 

Additionally, there are challenges related to sharing knowledge with 
international partners due to restrictions by the International Traffic 
in Arms Regulation (ITAR). This was highlighted by the International 
Space Station Independent Safety Task Force, and NASA has been working 
to address the concerns laid out in that study. Over the years, GAO has 
identified weaknesses in the efficiency and effectiveness of government 
programs designed to protect critical technologies while advancing U.S. 
interests. While each program has its own set of challenges, we found 
that these weaknesses are largely attributable to poor coordination 
within complex interagency processes, inefficiencies in program 
operations, and a lack of systematic evaluations for assessing program 
effectiveness and identifying corrective actions. However, in reviewing 
in the Joint Strike Fighter, another complex international system 
development effort, we also identified actions that could be taken 
early in programs to prevent delays and other problems related to ITAR. 
Our review going forward will assess the degree to which challenges in 
this area remain. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer 
any questions that you or the other members may have at this time. 

GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments: 

For further questions about this statement, please contact Cristina T. 
Chaplain at (202) 512-4841. Individuals making key contributions to 
this statement include James L. Morrison, Brendan S. Culley, Masha P. 
Pastuhov-Purdie, Keo Vongvanith and Alyssa B. Weir. 


[1] These values represent the time between the launch date of the 
flight that resulted in loss of the shuttle and the launch date of the 
next subsequent flight. 

[2] As required by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration 
(NASA) Authorization Act of 2005, Pub. L. No., 109-155 801, the 
International Space Station Independent Safety Task Force was charged 
with assessing the vulnerabilities of the International Space Station.

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