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NASA, Bidding To Save Money By Retiring Space Shuttles, Will Face Heretofore Hidden Costs

By | October 6, 2008

      NASA, in moving to save money by retiring the space shuttle fleet, will encounter hidden costs and problems, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported to congressional committees.

      The U.S. space agency "faces disparate challenges defining the scope and cost of [space shuttle] transition and retirement activities," the government watchdog agency cautioned.

      That is ironic, because NASA was ordered to retire the shuttles to save money, helping to pay for development of the replacement for the shuttles, the next-generation Orion- Ares U.S. spaceship system.

      Shuttles are to stop flying by October 2010, and Orion-Ares won’t have its first manned flight until 2015, creating a half-decade gap when the United States will have no manned space flight capability, and instead will have to purchase transport services for its astronauts from the Russians, private companies or allies such as Europe or Japan.

      A reluctant Congress just approved a plan for NASA to negotiate a space transport services contract with Russia for Soyuz flights beginning in 2012. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Sept. 29, 2008.)

      One problem, the GAO report stated, is that NASA has a huge number of unknowns in its plan to put the shuttles out of business.

      "For example, because the Constellation program is still finalizing its requirements, the agency does not yet know what [shuttle program] property it needs to retain or the full cost of the transition effort," the report found.

      "In addition, NASA faces other challenges that hamper its efforts to manage the transition and develop firm estimates of [shuttle program] transition and retirement scope and costs. For example, NASA has not developed final plans and/or cost estimates for making artifacts — including the orbiters Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour — safe for public display."

      Currently, the public can view a prototype shuttle, Enterprise, but it was a test article without motors that never flew to space, only in glider-type descents from a mother ship to a landing strip. It is on display at the Smithsonian Institution Air and Space Museum near Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

      Putting real shuttles on display could cost some substantial money, the GAO warned.

      "The total cost of [space shuttle] transition and retirement is not transparent in NASA’s current budget request and is not expected to be reflected in its fiscal year 2010 budget request," the auditing agency noted.

      "This is due in part to delays in estimating costs, but also to where costs are being reflected. For example, although [the shuttle-fleet] direct transition and retirement costs are identified in the [shuttle-fleet] budget line, indirect costs related to environmental clean-up and restoration, maintenance of required real property facilities during the gap in human spaceflight, and demolition of excess facilities are not."

      In other words, only some costs have shown up on public budget documents.

      "In addition, NASA plans to offset some transition costs by utilizing an ‘exchange/sale’ authority that allows executive agencies to exchange or sell non-excess, non-surplus personal property and apply the proceeds toward acquiring similar replacement property," the report concluded.

      This is all no minor matter, the watchdog agency observed.

      Space shuttle program retirement and transition of assets "will be an immense undertaking involving approximately 654 facilities worth an estimated $5.7 billion and equipment with an estimated value of more than $12 billion," according to GAO calculations.

      Many of the space shuttle program assets, such as huge buildings, are expected to be shifted into the Constellation Program that will design and build the new Orion-Ares spacecraft system, the report continued.

      Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] is developing the Orion space capsule, the crew exploration vehicle, while The Boeing Co. [BA], United Technologies Corp. [UTX] unit Pratt & Whitney Rockedyne, and Alliant Techsystems Inc. [ATK] are separately developing various segments of the Ares I rocket that will loft Orion into space.

      Other assets "will be dispositioned or preserved for their historic value," the report noted.

      A law called the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 directed the GAO to assess "NASA’s plans and progress in transitioning and retiring shuttle program facilities and equipment," which prompted the GAO report.

      In light of the problems and unknowns that GAO unearthed in its study, the watchdog agency recommended "that NASA clearly identify all direct and indirect [shuttle] transition and retirement costs, including any potential exchange sale proceeds in its 2010 and future budget requests."

      According to the GAO, NASA concurred with the recommendation.

      The full report titled "NASA: Agency Faces Challenges Defining Scope and Costs of Space Shuttle Transition and Retirement" may be read in full by going to on the Web and going to report number GAO-08-1096.

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