Challenges in Completing and Sustaining the International Space Station

GAO-07-1121T: Published: Jul 24, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 24, 2007.

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Cristina T. Chaplain
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Office of Public Affairs
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This testimony discusses 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. This statement focuses on the preliminary results of on-going efforts, as well as other GAO work completed to date. Specifically, it 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 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 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, 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.

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