Task Force Reports On The International Space Station

By Keith Cowing
November 4, 2001
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In a news briefing at NASA Headquarters last Friday, Tom Young, chairman of the Task Force briefed the press on his team’s findings [Full report; Appendix Acrobat files]. In concise phrasing Young said “No” when asked if NASA could complete a credible space station program (as planned) within its current FY 2002-2006 budget of $8.3 billion. Moreover, Young said that his team was unable to gauge the actual cost of the program or its overruns (often cited as being in the billions of dollars) due to NASA’s inability to track costs.

Young expressed the Task Force’s finding and recommendations with some urgency: “The existing deficiencies in management structure, institutional culture, cost
estimating, and program control must be acknowledged and corrected for
the Program to move forward in a credible fashion.” (Page 1)

While the tone of the briefing was clearly focused on NASA’s mismanagement of the ISS program, Young did leave open the possibility for a brighter future for the U.S. Once NASA has demonstrated its ability to tighten up management and cost accounting, Young feels that it should be given the chance to work towards the original 7 person space station currently on the drawing board.

NASA’s Budget Numbers: “Not Credible”

The baseline against which Young’ s Task Force worked was the so called “core complete” ISS configuration i.e. a CRV (Crew Return Vehicle), Habitation module, Node 3 and a U.S. Propulsion Module. Young’s Task Force was tasked to determine whether NASA’s current FY 2002-2006 budget of $8.6 billion was sufficient to complete the core complete configuration. “No, it is not” said Young. “Either there is too much scope for the money or not enough money for the scope”. When asked if his task force had been able to identify just how large the cost overrun is, Young said “No.” He said that it was very important that NASA be able to understand this figure noting that it was, in the opinion of his Task Force “not hundred of millions – but more.”

If the answer to this first question was “No” the Task Force was then assigned the task of making recommendations as to how a credible program could be put into place. Young said that this might be possible if management changes were put into place; if cost savings could be realized within the ISS program as well as within the non-ISS part of the OSF (Office of Space Flight) budget; and if there was a “stable plan” in place for everyone to follow.

The task Force was also supposed to look into the financial tools NASA used to manage the ISS program. Young said that NASA’s current financial management of the ISS program is “inadequate” But that changes could be made that are “straightforward.” He noted that cost estimation capabilities are required to establish a “firm foundation” upon which the program needs to move forward.

Young said his team was also tasked to find ways to maximize the scientific return of the ISS and to understand what “enhancements” might be added to the core complete configuration in the future.

Fixing Broken Management

The management changes recommended by the Task Force center upon streamlining, focusing, and integrating the relationships between various aspects of the program and the plans they work toward.. At JSC, for example Young recommends that NASA “projectize” the ISS program such that people who work for the program do so directly instead of the current way that people from various organizations are matrixed into the program. At NASA Headquarters, Young recommended that an assistant associate Administrator for the ISS program be named. This individual would have total responsibility for all aspects of the ISS program.

To make sure that everyone is working toward the same game plan, Young suggests that NASA rework the core direction of the program. Right now, “if you talk with people, different people are working towards different plans” Young said. When asked if the current situation at NASA could happening the private sector Young replied that it could and that it is likely to occur if ” you manage a program against metrics that are not the same as those used by people to measure your progress.”

How Do We Get There From Here?

The Task Force considered three broad options for how the ISS program should move ahead. The first would be to reach an “end state”. According to Young this would mean stopping with a 3 person crew forever. This would have significant impacts upon the international partners and upon the scientific utilization of the ISS. Young said that he hoped that this path would not be the one taken.

The second option would be to go ahead and construct the full ISS configuration. However, to do so according to Young, the budget would need to be significantly enhanced by several billion dollars. To do this, Young said “would not resolve the NASA credibility issue.”

The third option to take is the one Young’s Task Force recommends – one that is perched between the first two options. NASA would proceed to complete the core complete configuration and would implement the changes recommended by the Task Force. In the coming 6 months, NASA would produce a “credible” core complete option plan. NASA would also need to establish a science plan that took all of the changes into account. Some modest funds would also be provided to evaluate how to go beyond core complete.

If all goes according to the Task Force’s recommendations, several years from now, NASA would have its progress reviewed. If the review determines that NASA has established a credible program, then the recommendation would be to move ahead and complete the full ISS. Part of how NASA’s plan has achieved credibility will have to do with how it accommodates the needs of the scientists who will be using the ISS. If NASA is allowed to proceed to the full ISS, then science would also serve as a guide as to how this would be accomplished.

Young said that if NASA does not establish a credible program over the next few years, that the recommendation from this review team would -and should be to stay with the 3-person ISS configuration and not to proceed any further.

Management: Missing the Forest for the Trees

One of the major contributing causes to the situation the ISS program finds itself in was the fact that NASA had to manage the program in adherence to annual funding caps. In an effort to limit cost growth congress instituted a $2.1 billion a year cap on ISS development spending with total development not to exceed $17.4 billion. In 2000 a new cap of $25 billion was put in place by Congress. Both of these caps are now out of synch with what the actual cost of the ISS is expected to be:

“The cost to achieve comparable expectations at assembly complete has grown from an
estimate of $17.4B to over $30B. Much of this cost growth is a consequence of
underestimating cost and a schedule erosion of 4+ years.” (Page 3)

According to Young, these caps caused NASA to make thing fit into annual increments. When something could not be accomplished under one fiscal year’s funding, it was often delayed or “moved to the right”. Over time this led to a number of things that had been deferred , often without sufficient cost tracking. Eventually these deferred items came back to haunt the program in the form of increased costs. Young said ” caps may make you feel good for a while but it is the worst way to manage a program.”

While budget caps may have tied NASA’s hands, NASA and the Clinton Administration were also deemed guilty of aspiring to unrealistic budget goals:

“The Clinton administration directed the Station redesign in 1993 to reduce the projected cost of Freedom, which was independently estimated at $3-5B above NASAs March 1993 estimate of $23.6B. Additionally, the Russians were invited to participate in the program at this time. Some of the assumptions behind the selected 1993 Space Station “Alpha” design and cost estimate of $17.4B now appear to be ridiculously optimistic.” (Page 55)

Young suggested that allowing NASA to manage the program in an overall sense – towards an “end state” and not to a series of annual efforts would help make cost estimation easier and cost containment more easily accomplished. Young made certain to add, that managerial and cost problems aside, the technical and safety progress of the ISS thus far has been “excellent”. He said that he felt that changing the management paradigm to one that focused on the entire program would allow a “good program” to be put together.

Science – the Original Purpose for the Space Station

In the past few years, funding for the scientific utilization of the ISS has been repeatedly reduced in order to move funds into ISS development accounts. This has not sat well with the scientific community or with Congress.

According to Young, as his Task Force looked at the impact of past cuts and future funding limitations on the scientific research to be performed on the ISS, it became clear that a series of science priorities were lacking and that they needed to be established. Young cautioned that spending should be focused upon meeting these priorities and not be spent on “keeping a large community alive.” Specifically the report says:

“The current budget mark appears to be an arbitrary reflection of content. As noted, it does not appear to have been adequately reconciled to anticipate potential changes to the physical and operational characteristics of the ISS. It lacks the cost fidelity that would allow a determination of adequacy. This is particularly critical in determining cost risk. Areas of potential risk are addressed in Section 5.3.

The most significant failing of the proposed budget is the lack of a coherent financial management strategy attributable to the stand-alone research budget, and more importantly, the budget as an integrated part of the total ISS effort. There are indications that the proposed content may exceed the operational capabilities of the ISS. If this is true, management should be aggressively evaluating the potential for re-planning and redirecting budget.” (Page 64)

In order make certain that Science has a voice, Young said that there should be a Deputy Program Manager for Science and that this person should be a full participant in all of the major program decisions.

According to the report:

“The research approach appears insular. It appears to lack coordination with the emerging reality imposed by ISS budget reductions. It is not part of an integrated financial management strategy and, ultimately, may be frustrating the development of a robust science program.” (Page 65)

The Centrifuge Facility: Critical Item

One of the key science items to be placed on the ISS is the Centrifuge Facility which is due to be housed in its own dedicated module – the Centrifuge Accommodation Module. The launch date for this facility has continued to slip. In 1993 it was to have been on orbit in December 2001. Now, as we are a few weeks away from December 2001, various schedules show the Centrifuge Facility in space in 2006 at the earliest – or as late as 2008.

The Centrifuge Facility is designed to study a variety of questions in how life (cells, plants, and animals), adapt to the presence and absence of gravity. This facility does this with a 2.5 meter diameter rotor and a variety of support systems and habitats. According to Young, since the ISS is geared towards human spaceflight – including the ability of humans to live in space for prolonged periods of time, this facility is a “top priority.” Young said ” We can’t do this [human space research] without the Centrifuge Facility. This is critical.”

Shuttle Savings Options

A variety of cost savings approaches were recommended by Young. One is to move towards a Shuttle flight rate of 4 missions per year. Yong said that current plans call for 7 flights in 2002, 5 in 2003, 6 in 2004 and thereafter. He said that cutting this to 4 flights per year instead of 6 could lead to some significant cost savings. Even though much of the Shuttle program’s budget is more or less constant and not affected by shuttle rate (within certain parameters). There is a marginal cost of $80 million. If NASA went from 6 to 4 flights a year that would amount to an annual savings over 6 years of $480 million.

In addition to altering the Shuttle flight rate, Young said that the ISS program would also have fewer Shuttle flights to prepare for saving $188 over the same period of time. Taken together this amounts to a potential savings of $668 million.

Increasing Crew Hours

Young also said that changing the Soyuz Crew Return Vehicle changeout from once every 6 months to once every 5 months would allow a crew overlap for up to a month providing a temporary 6 person crew capability (3 person ISS crew plus the 3 person Soyuz changeout crew).

This increase in crew time – even if sporadic – is important since current estimates for ISS maintenance require 2.5 crew members leaving little time for science. With only 3 crew aboard that leaves little time for science. As the ISS grows the amount of time that can be devoted to each experiment would decrease further. This is a concern not only to the scientific community but also to the international partners who are expecting to get sufficient crew time to operate experiments in their laboratory modules.

Specifically the report says:

“The research scenario is predicated on an allotment of 20 crew hours per week for a three-person crew. The adequacy of this allotment relative to the identified research content could not be established during this review. The ability to support this allotment is suspect. It is further page complicated by International Partner claims that could be altered due to the budget-related impacts. These are not yet well understood, but could well erode U.S. research claims on the crew allotment.” (pages 64-65)

Young also said that some work might be put into EDO (Extended Duration Orbiter) capabilities to allow a Space Shuttle to remain docked to the ISS for long periods (30 or more days) to increase the crew hours available for science.

International Partners: Left Out Of The Process?

Not only was this press briefing the first public discussion of the Task Force’s findings and recommendations, it was also the first chance NASA’s international partners to learn what NASA’s advisors were recommending. Representatives from ESA, CSA, and NASDA were either in the auditorium at NASA HQ reading the report for the very first time or scrambling overseas to pull a copy of the report off of a malfunctioning NASA website.

When asked to describe the role of the International Partners in the Task Force’s activities, Young said that representatives from other participating space agencies were allowed to sit in on the Task Force’s deliberations – both those held in open session, as well as some held behind closed doors. There were times however, when the Task Force had discussions of a nature that required that the observers from the international partners were asked to leave. According to Young the Task Force’s findings and recommendations were put together without the participation of the international partners.


When asked what effect the Task Force’s recommendations will have on jobs, Young said that there would certainly an impact. “Most to the US hardware is at the Cape – not much is left in development.” Therefore, according to Young ” most of the remaining costs are in operations, sustaining engineering, etc. These costs are mostly people costs.” As such a decrease in overall program cost is going to result in a reduced number of people. Young said “there is no question that if our recommendations are followed that there will be some reductions in contractor manpower and reductions in civil service manpower.”

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Young closed the press briefing on a hopeful note. When asked if and how the ISS fits into NASA’s overall mission – one with a large all encompassing set of goals, Young was quick to say that it certainly does. Indeed, Young joked, he and his Task Force would have probably liked to have spent their time taking about the bigger issues of the future than the cost problems of today.

“NASA exists to do the things that no one else does”. He said that long duration human spaceflight is of crucial importance for the future. “I dont know when we’ll do something beyond the ISS but I know that we will.” He added ” I come from a world where managing things is important. The ISS can do some extraordinary science. I don’t need that big [overall] goal – but I want our country to get ready for it.”

Related Links

  • 2 November 2001: Full report [490K Adobe Acrobat]
  • 2 November 2001: Appendix [530K Adobe Acrobat]
  • 2 November 2001: ISS Management and Cost Evaluation Task Force Report: Findings and

  • 2 November 2001: ISS Management and Cost Evaluation Task Force Report: Preface, Members,
    Executive Summary

  • 2 November 2001: Boehlert and Hall Speak Out on Space Station Task Force Report, House Science Committee

    Background Information

  • 31 August 2001: NASA: International Space Station and Shuttle Support Cost Limits, GAO-01-1000R [HTML] [Acrobat]

  • 31 July 2001: NASA Administrator announces distinguished team to review International Space Station, NASA PAO

  • 8 July 2001: The International Space Station’s Distressing Shortfall, SpaceRef

  • 29 June 2001: GAO Report Criticises NASA Management of Space Station Propulsion Module Project, House Science Committee

  • 27 June 2001: NASA Office of Inspector General Audit of Acquisition of the Space Station Propulsion Module

  • 2 May 2001: Goldin Before Congress: Space Station Science Cuts and “Baby Sitting” for Dennis Tito, SpaceRef

  • 26 April 2001: International Space Station Propulsion Module Procurement Process GAO-01-576R, General Accounting Office (Adobe Acrobat).

  • 6 April 2001: Congress, NASA, and the International Space Station: A New Civility?, SpaceRef (in four parts)

  • 4 April 2001: NASA’s Space Station Program: Evolution and Current Status: House Science Committee testimony by Marcia S. Smith Congressional Research Service

    Editor’s note: this is perhaps the best short summarization of the Space Station program from its inception until today that I have ever seen.

  • 2 April 2001: Statement of Daniel S. Goldin, Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, before the Committee on Science House of Representatives

  • 2 April 2001: Testimony of Russell A. Rau, NASA Assistant Inspector General forAuditing before the House Science Committee

  • 2 April 2001: Statement of Robert J. Polutchko Member, Cost Assessment And Validation Task Force Advisory Committee on the International Space Station, before the Committee on Science House of Representatives

  • 28 February 2001: NASA’s Budget Revealed: A quick look at the new ISS – rather, what’s left of it, SpaceRef

  • 17 March 2001: Hearing Summary:FY2001 NASA Budget Request: Human Spaceflight”, hearing before the House Science Committee’s subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, SpaceRef

  • 21 April 1998: Report of the Cost Assessment and Validation Task Force on the International Space Station, NASA Advisory Council

  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.