Space Shuttle:

Further Improvements Needed in NASA's Modernization Efforts

GAO-04-203: Published: Jan 15, 2004. Publicly Released: Feb 13, 2004.

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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.

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 (ISTP) such as the International Space Station (ISS). 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 (SLEP) 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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Due to the adjusted retirement date of 2010 for the space shuttle, there is no longer a need to perform major upgrades to the shuttle beyond the presently approved upgrades and, therefore, no analytic tools or metrics will be developed by NASA for this purpose. Under the present circumstances, the recommendations resulting from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board will be the last major upgrades to the shuttle. Any necessary safety/sustainability related modifications made to the shuttle will not make use of analytic tools or metrics.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the agency's efforts to modernize the space shuttle, the NASA Administrator should continue to pursue development of analytic tools and metrics to help assure that SLEP program officials have accurate, reliable, and timely quantifiable information to complement their professional judgment.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The new Vision has changed the need for a metric showing the relationship of upgrade investments to increases in shuttle operational life and/or safety for the entire space shuttle system. Under the present circumstances, the recommendations resulting from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board will be the last major upgrades to the shuttle. There is no longer a need to perform major upgrades to the shuttle beyond the presently approved upgrades, as it will be retired in 2010. Therefore, because no additional major upgrades will be performed on the shuttle, no measurable metric to measure the improvements is required. Safety/sustainability related modifications to the shuttle will be made, as needed. However, NASA will not use a formal metric on these types of investments.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the agency's efforts to modernize the space shuttle, the NASA Administrator should develop and consistently apply a clear measurable metric to show the relationship of upgrade investments to an increase in shuttle operational life and/or safety for the entire space shuttle system. NASA's Quantitative Risk Assessment System could be a basis for such a metric since it is intended to measure the safety improvement of a single upgrade project.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Just as this report was issued, in January 2004, the ISTP was replaced by the President's new Vision for Space Exploration. The end of the ISS utilization period (or, its "ultimate life") is 2016 and its mission is now based on needs associated with the new vision for exploration. Under the present circumstances, the recommendations resulting from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board will be the last major upgrades to the shuttle. There is no longer a need to perform major upgrades to the shuttle beyond the presently approved upgrades, as it will be retired in 2010.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the agency's efforts to modernize the space shuttle, the NASA Administrator should fully define the requirements for all elements of the ISTP so that those responsible for identifying, selecting, and prioritizing shuttle upgrades will have the guidance and a sound basis to ensure their decisions on upgrade projects are completely integrated with all other elements of the transportation plan. In particular, the Administrator should determine, in conjunction with its international partners, the ultimate life and mission of the ISS in order to provide a sound basis for fully defining shuttle requirements.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The retirement date of the space shuttle has changed to 2010. Under the present circumstances the recommendations resulting from the CAIB will be the last major upgrades to the shuttle and there is no longer a need to perform major upgrades to the shuttle beyond the presently approved upgrades. NASA continues to update its "Implementation Plan for Space Shuttle Return to Flight and Beyond" to include costs associated with the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendations through FY 2006. Beginning in FY 2007, Return to Flight technical content that must be sustained for the program's remaining service life will be absorbed into the Program's baseline budget. However, due to the new retirement date of 2010, no additional major upgrades are scheduled to occur through the life of the shuttle. Therefore, an updated estimate for all upgrades through 2010 would not be relevant at this time. NASA will continue making safety/sustainability related modifications on the shuttle, as needed. However, these costs will be included in the Program's baseline estimates submitted to Congress. The majority of the upgrades approved prior to release of this report have been completed or are in their completion stage, while some, such as the Cockpit Avionics Upgrade, were canceled.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the agency's efforts to modernize the space shuttle, the NASA Administrator should develop a total cost estimate for all upgrades through 2020 by updating the current rough order of magnitude estimate to include new projects resulting from the CAIB recommendations, estimates of project life-cycle costs, and estimates of major potential projects, such as a crew escape system, so that the resources needed to fund shuttle upgrades can be ascertained.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

 

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