24 January 2006
NASA must plan better, GAO says
Moon-Mars program could face trouble if corrections aren't made
By Larry Wheeler


NASA may employ rocket scientists and many other intelligent people, but the space agency still needs to improve how it executes big projects that cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

A report Monday by the Government Accountability Office, which has long been critical of NASA's management skills, suggested the space agency's estimated $100 billion program to send astronauts back to the moon is headed for trouble unless it adopts more stringent procedures.

Among the report's findings:

  • NASA policies allow projects to proceed without proving technologies are fully developed. This increases the risk of costly design changes later.
  • NASA centers have different levels of assessing a project. That, combined with the loss of experienced project managers, makes it difficult to objectively evaluate the status of a particular project.

The report concluded: "NASA's failure to define requirements adequately and quantify the resources needed to meet those requirements resulted in some projects costing more, taking longer and achieving less than originally planned."

The findings are not new. During the past decade, the NASA has experienced delays, overruns and outright cancellations of projects.

The GAO attributed those troubles, in part, to the now abandoned "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy articulated by former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin.

In a written response to a draft of the GAO report, a NASA official defended the agency's policies. Shana Dale, an assistant administrator, indicated the space agency would take steps to strengthen its project management to reflect some of the GAO's recommendations.

The GAO is Congress' investigative arm and serves in an advisory role.

Although many members of Congress fully support the nation's civilian space agency, there's grumbling every year as the International Space Station's costs escalate and construction is delayed.

The shuttle fleet is struggling to resume regular flights following the Columbia disaster in 2003. Because the reusable space planes are set to retire in just four years, there is considerable speculation on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that the United States won't be able to complete its share of the space station project.


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