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International Space Station: Measurable Performance Targets and Documentation Needed to Better Assess Management of National Laboratory

GAO-15-397 Published: Apr 27, 2015. Publicly Released: May 27, 2015.
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What GAO Found

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), manager of the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory, has taken steps to fulfill its management responsibilities contained in its cooperative agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and has initiated the activities required by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. GAO found that CASIS implemented procedures for prioritizing research; evaluated 206 proposals and awarded approximately $20 million in grants to 77 research projects through January 2015; and cultivated relationships with academic institutions, research-specific organizations, and other entities. CASIS, however, has not been able to fulfill its responsibility in the cooperative agreement to interact with the ISS National Laboratory Advisory Committee, which NASA was statutorily required to establish under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, because NASA has yet to staff the committee as required by the NASA Authorization Act of 2008. As a result, CASIS is not able to fulfill its responsibility in the cooperative agreement that requires it to coordinate with this committee and review any report or recommendations it originates.

CASIS has established fiscal year 2015 metrics that meet most of GAO's key attributes for successful performance measures (see figure below); however, NASA and CASIS did not establish measurable targets for these performance metrics, and NASA's annual assessment of CASIS was not documented.

Assessment of Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) Fiscal Year 2015 Metrics Against GAO's Key Attributes of Successful Performance Measures




Measurable target


Core program activity

Limited overlap


CASIS Performance Metrics


Source: GAO analysis. | GAO-15-397

GAO's work on best practices for measuring program performance has found that performance metrics should have quantifiable targets to help assess whether goals and objectives were achieved by easily comparing projected performance and actual results. CASIS officials told GAO in July 2014 that setting measurable targets would be arbitrary because CASIS processes and metrics are still evolving. In January 2015, however, the Chairman of the CASIS Board of Directors told GAO that setting measurable targets is a priority for the board. CASIS, however, has yet to establish a date by which measurable targets will be developed. Using the established metrics, NASA is required by the cooperative agreement to perform an annual program review of CASIS's performance. This review is informal and not documented as ISS program officials provide the results to CASIS orally. This approach is inconsistent with federal internal control standards, which call for information to be recorded and communicated to those who need it to manage programs, including monitoring performance and supporting future decision making. Although NASA officials reported that they were generally satisfied with CASIS's performance, CASIS officials said a formal summary of the results would make the information more actionable.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. has spent almost $43 billion to develop, assemble, and operate the ISS over the past two decades. The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 required NASA to enter into a cooperative agreement with a not-for-profit entity to manage the ISS National Laboratory and in 2011 did so with CASIS. CASIS is charged with maximizing use of the ISS for scientific research by executing several required activities. Recently, questions have arisen about the progress being made to implement the required activities and the impact it has had on ISS's return on the investment.

GAO was asked to report on the progress of CASIS's management of the ISS National Laboratory. GAO assessed the extent to which (1) CASIS has implemented the required management activities, and (2) NASA and CASIS measure and assess CASIS's performance. To perform this work, GAO reviewed the cooperative agreement between NASA and CASIS, CASIS's annual program plans, and other documentation and interviewed ISS, CASIS, and NASA officials.


GAO recommends NASA fully staff the ISS National Laboratory Advisory Committee; NASA and CASIS work together to develop measurable targets for CASIS's metrics; and NASA begin documenting its annual review of CASIS's performance. NASA partially concurred and CASIS did not concur with the first recommendation, but concurred with the other two. GAO continues to believe the first recommendation is valid, as discussed further in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Aeronautics and Space Administration In order to set clear goals to allow NASA to objectively assess CASIS performance, the NASA Administrator should require the ISS Program Manager work with CASIS to collectively develop and approve measurable targets for metrics for fiscal year 2016 and beyond.
Closed – Implemented
NASA and CASIS developed and agreed upon a set of metrics such that CASIS performance can be objectively measured for fiscal year 2016. CASIS, in its quarterly reports to NASA, has reported the data associated with the metrics.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration In order to provide CASIS management actionable information to better fulfill its responsibilities and NASA management with additional information by which to make future decisions concerning the extension of the agreement with CASIS, the NASA Administrator should require the ISS Program Manager to document the annual program assessment of CASIS performance.
Closed – Implemented
After reviewing CASIS' fiscal year 2015 annual report, NASA provided a written assessment of CASIS performance on March 31, 2016.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration In order for NASA to fully implement the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 and for CASIS to fulfill its responsibility as outlined in the cooperative agreement, the NASA Administrator should direct the Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate to fully staff the ISS National Laboratory Advisory Committee.
Closed – Not Implemented
NASA does not plan to staff the International Space Station National Laboratory Advisory Committee (INLAC). Officials stated that they continue to believe that the Center for Advancements of Science in Space (CASIS) Board of Directors meets the intent of the INLAC charter by providing oversight of the CASIS implementation of utilization of the ISS as a national laboratory. Further, according to NASA, NASA and CASIS have held quarterly public board meetings for the general public and interested parties to foster additional transparency. NASA and CASIS also meet face to face no less than quarterly to ensure performance requirements are on track.

Full Report

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