Status Report

Space Shuttle: Further Improvements Needed in NASA’s Modernization Efforts. GAO-04-203

By SpaceRef Editor
February 13, 2004
Filed under , , ,

Space Shuttle: Further Improvements Needed in NASA’s Modernization Efforts. GAO-04-203, January 15, 2004, GAO (Acrobat)

NASA cannot fully define shuttle upgrade requirements until it resolves
questions over the shuttle’s operational life and determines requirements
for elements of its Integrated Space Transportation Plan such as the
International Space Station. Prior efforts to upgrade the shuttle have been
stymied because NASA could not develop a strategic investment plan or
systematically define the spacecraft’s requirements because of changes in its
life expectancy and mission.

NASA is trying to improve how it identifies, selects, and prioritizes shuttle
upgrades. In March 2003, it institutionalized a Space Shuttle Service Life
Extension Program to ensure safe and effective operations, along with a
management plan documenting roles and responsibilities and an annual
process for selecting upgraded projects and studies. In addition, NASA will
try to improve shuttle safety by implementing the recommendations of the
Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB).

NASA’s estimate of the total cost to upgrade the shuttle—$300 million-$500
million a year, or a total of $5 billion-$8 billion through 2020—is reasonably
based but could be significantly higher, as it does not include potential
projects such as a crew escape system. It will be difficult for NASA to make
an accurate estimate until it firmly establishes the basic requirements (such
as life expectancy) for the shuttle and the process for selecting shuttle
upgrades. A number of potential changes could significantly increase the
cost of shuttle upgrades, including responses to the recommendations of
the CAIB.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Columbia tragedy has
accentuated the need to modernize
the 20-year-old space shuttle, the
only U.S. launch system that
carries people to and from space.
The shuttle will now be needed for
another two decades. As it ages,
the spacecraft’s components will
also age, and it may become
increasingly unreliable.

GAO examined the National
Aeronautics and Space
Administration’s (NASA) plans to
upgrade the shuttle through 2020,
how it will identify and select what
upgrades are needed, how much
the upgrades may cost, and what
factors will influence that cost over
the system’s lifetime.

What GAO Recommends

NASA needs to fully define shuttle
upgrade requirements so decisions
on upgrade projects can be
integrated with its transportation
plan. The agency must improve
how it selects upgrades by
developing an indicator that shows
how upgrading will increase shuttle
life or safety as well as other
analytic tools to help its staff make
judgments. It must develop a
thorough estimate of the total lifecycle
cost of upgrades through
2020, to determine the funding that
will be needed for shuttle upgrades.

NASA fully concurred with most
GAO recommendations, and agreed
with the intent of the
recommendation to develop a cost
estimate for all shuttle upgrades
through 2020.

SpaceRef staff editor.