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

GAO-10-87R: Published: Oct 15, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 15, 2009.

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Cristina T. Chaplain
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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. 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 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.

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