- Press Release
- Dec 5, 2022
NASA OIG Audit of NASA’s Requirements for Plum Brook Station
WHY WE PERFORMED THIS AUDIT
Plum Brook Station, located about 50 miles west of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Sandusky, Ohio, is home to several unique space-related test facilities, including the Space Power Facility (SPF), an environmental simulation chamber used to test hardware in a simulated space or planetary environment. However, a majority of Plum Brook’s test facilities are underutilized and the level of use and funding they receive depends on whether individual NASA programs or external customers choose to perform testing there rather than at other NASA or private facilities. The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directed the Agency to examine its real property assets and downsize to fit current and future missions and expected funding levels, paying particular attention to removing unneeded or duplicative infrastructure. In this audit, we assessed the cost of operating Plum Brook in light of its current and expected use.
WHAT WE FOUND
Over the past 10 years, Plum Brook has eliminated approximately 1.3 million square feet of buildings and structures from its property. However, it continues to maintain several major testing facilities most prominently the SPF and the Spacecraft Propulsion Research Facility (B-2), the world’s largest thermal vacuum chamber that is also capable of testing rocket engines. Of these facilities, only the SPF has a full slate of testing planned over the next several years. In contrast, Plum Brook’s Hypersonic Tunnel Facility and Cryogenic Components Laboratory have not been utilized for at least 4 years while a third facility the Combined Effects Chamber designed for large-scale liquid hydrogen experiments is unusable in its current condition. As of February 2015, NASA had not identified any customers for these three facilities. Moreover, although NASA’s Solar Electric Propulsion Project plans to perform testing in the B-2 vacuum chamber in 2015, future utilization of the facility’s rocket testing capabilities is uncertain. While NASA officials told us the B-2 could be used to test the Space Launch System’s (SLS) upper stage rockets, such testing would require $15 million in basic refurbishment to the facility costs the SLS Program or any other potential customer would be expected to cover in addition to potentially significant program-specific test costs necessary to meet customer requirements.
Plum Brook maintains a large amount of property to act as a buffer zone of open space to accommodate rocket testing at the B-2. If it becomes clear that such testing is not likely to resume, Plum Brook may be able to achieve cost savings by reducing the size of the buffer or at a minimum reducing the level of landscaping and road maintenance it performs in the zone.
Finally, although Plum Brook and local officials have discussed several ideas to bring additional revenues to the site such as establishing a wind farm and leasing land for commercial research, funding for these efforts has not materialized and it appears unlikely these efforts will come to fruition.
WHAT WE RECOMMENDED
In order to assist NASA in ensuring effective and appropriate utilization of Plum Brook test facilities, we recommended the Assistant Administrator for Strategic Infrastructure and the Director of Plum Brook determine a long-term strategy for Plum Brook and evaluate and pursue plans to excess or demolish any unneeded infrastructure.
In response to a draft of our report, management concurred with our recommendations and described corrective actions they plan to address them. We consider management’s comments responsive; therefore, the recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions.