Maintaining the International Space Station Through 2024 : NASA OIG Report

NASA’s Office of Inspector General released a report yesterday outlining several issues facing NASA as it seeks to extent the operating life of the International Space Station from current threshold of 2020, until at least 2024.

The good news is that there are no outstanding technical issues which seriously threaten the ability to keep the outpost, the first elements of which have already passed the 15 year mark, in orbit and functioning safely.

There are however, a number of political and financial areas of concern, which could themselves lead to technical issues, such as the lack of an adequate means to re-boost the station’s orbit in the event Russia elects to leave the partnership, an eventuality which could lead to a whole host of other challenges, as well as increased operating expenses for the U.S., as it sought to maintain supply lines through its commercial contracts, currently SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.

Another significant challenge could arise if Japan backs away from a plan to keep launching its HTV re-supply vessel on an annual basis.

The report also states that as NASA replaces Russian crew transportation with the Boeing and SpaceX contracts which were awarded earlier this week, the costs per seat could rise dramatically over the $70 million benchmark under the current situation, a conclusion which appears to be at odds with claims by SpaceX that its costs will be well below Russia’s on a per seat basis, and by Boeing that it should be roughly on par.

Other issues include what the OIG believes are improperly incentives awarded to Boeing for its ongoing ISS support contracts, as well as a concern that there is no currently available means to deliver larger replacement components to the Station.

For a station which cost nearly $100 billion to construct (including Shuttle flights which NASA places in a different account) and costs a steady and growing $3 billion per year to maintain, one of the most troubling aspects raised in the report is the slow start and comparatively poor performance by CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which operates the U.S. National Laboratory aboard ISS.

CASIS receives $15 million per year from NASA’s budget, but is supposed to be raising significant sums through its own efforts.  According to the OIG it has thus far fallen short, having raised a paltry $14,550 in cash, albeit with pledges for $8.2 million more.  CASIS however, contends that elements of its current contracts do not allow commercial researchers clear intellectual property rights to discoveries made aboard ISS, and are chasing away potential partners as a result. Unfortunately a fix would require legislation from a Congress which cannot seem to pass much except for Continuing Resolutions.

One note: The OIG report is well written, very well illustrated and offers a treasure trove of information regarding the operations and budgets of ISS.  Given the massive taxpayer investment in getting the Station up there in the first place, it is well worth a free pdf download to get a clear picture of what it is doing.

Posted in: ISS, NASA

About the Author:

Post a Comment