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NASA OIG: Extending the Operational Life of the International Space Station Until 2024

Press Release From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2014

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NASA Inspector General Paul Martin today released a report examining the challenges NASA faces extending International Space Station (ISS or Station) operations until 2024.  In November 2013, the Station completed 15 years of continuous operation in low Earth orbit, marking a significant achievement in the history of human spaceflight.  Two months later, the President announced his intent to extend Station operations until 2024.  Originally designed and tested for a 15-year life span, the ISS may now operate for 26 years in low Earth orbit if the Administration's proposal is acted upon.

The United States has invested nearly $75 billion in the ISS, and NASA will continue to spend between $3 -$4 billion per year to maintain and operate the Station going forward.   Up to this point, Russia, Japan, the European Union and Canada have contributed to ISS operations and helped share associated expenses by providing astronauts, ground facilities, launch vehicles, and other items and services.  However, the level of these partners' participation beyond 2020 is uncertain. 

In this audit, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that while NASA has identified no major obstacles to extending ISS operations to 2024, it must address several areas of risk to ensure continued safe operations.  Specifically, the ISS faces a risk of insufficient power generation due in part to faster-than-expected degradation of its solar arrays.  Second, although most replacement parts have proven more reliable than expected, sudden failures of key hardware have occurred requiring unplanned space walks for repair or replacement.  Third, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet NASA has a limited capacity to transport several large replacement parts to the Station should they be needed.  While the ISS Program is actively working to mitigate these risks, anticipating the correct amount of replacement parts and transporting them to the ISS present major challenges to extending Station operations 10 or more years beyond its original expected service life. 

The OIG also found the assumptions underlying the Agency's budget projections for the ISS are overly optimistic and that its actual costs may be higher.  NASA projects its annual budget for the ISS Program to grow from $3 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2014 to nearly $4 billion by FY 2020.  However, ISS Program costs rose 26 percent between FYs 2011 and 2013 and an average of 8 percent annually over the life of the program.  Moreover, much of the projected cost increase is attributable to higher transportation costs, and the OIG found unrealistic NASA's current transportation estimates.  For example, NASA's estimates for the cost of commercial crew transportation services expected to replace the Russian Soyuz are based on the cost of a Soyuz seat in FY 2016 - $70.7 million per seat for a total cost of $283 million per mission for transporting four astronauts.  However, the Program's independent government cost estimates project significantly higher transportation costs when the Agency transitions to contracts with commercial spaceflight companies.  In addition, the Agency's international partners have yet to commit to participating in Station operations beyond 2020, and a decision by one or more to end their participation would likely mean more expense for NASA.  Failure to address these challenges in a timely manner could significantly affect the functionality, cost, and value of extending the operational life of the Station until 2024.

Moreover, we found that although a significant amount of NASA research aboard the ISS involves mitigating risks associated with long-term human presence in space, the Agency will not be able to address all of these risks through ISS research even if Station operations continue through 2024.  In addition, while utilization of the ISS for research continues to increase, NASA and its partner responsible for attracting private research to the Station -- the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) -- continue to face challenges.  For example, to date CASIS has raised only $14,550 in cash and received pledges of $8.2 million to supplement NASA's $15 million annual cooperative agreement.  In addition, CASIS officials reported that provisions in its agreement with NASA that require researchers to assign certain patent licenses and data rights to the Government are deterring commercial stakeholders from conducting research on the ISS. 

Finally, the OIG found that NASA paid Boeing between $6.7 and $13.2 million in award fees for the 2009 through 2013 period of performance that we could not validate.  We found discrepancies between the established guidance in the contract's award-fee plan and the fees awarded to Boeing.  Specifically, while the award-fee plan provides for evaluations to be conducted using weighted scores with grades in each of four categories, NASA performed this evaluation for only two of the four categories.  In our judgment, the award fee process would be more transparent and NASA would gain a more accurate assessment of contractor performance by using weighted and numerical scores in each category.

The OIG recommended NASA: (1) continue to solicit commitments from international partners to maintain their support for the ISS and reduce the Agency's costs; (2) track, manage, and mitigate human health risks to long-term exploration and identify and prioritize the risks that must be mitigated prior to decommissioning of the ISS; and (3) continue to pursue legislative options that will address patent license and data rights.  NASA agreed with each of the OIG's recommendations and promised to undertake corrective actions.

To read the OIG full report, please visit our website at: http://oig.nasa.gov/audits/reports/FY14/IG-14-031.pdf

Please contact Renee Juhans at (202) 358-1220 if you have questions about this report.

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