NASA needs management overhaul, shuttle investigators told

In its final public hearing Thursday, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board moved beyond the search for the immediate cause of the loss of the space shuttle on Feb. 1 to probe the overall state of NASA's management. Witnesses told panel members that the agency suffers from several key weaknesses, especially in the areas of workforce planning and contract oversight.

"NASA, like many federal agencies, is facing substantial challenges in attracting and retaining a highly skilled workforce, thus putting the agency's missions at risk," Allen Li, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the General Accounting Office, told the panel.

In January 2001, GAO reported that NASA's shuttle workforce had been cut to the point of reducing the agency's ability to safely support shuttle operations. "Many key areas were not sufficiently staffed by qualified workers, and the remaining workforce showed signs of overwork and fatigue," Li said.

Since then, NASA has reversed downsizing efforts, developed a strategic human capital plan, and begun creating an agencywide workforce planning and analysis system. The agency is currently seeking a series of personnel reforms from Congress, including streamlined hiring authority for certain scientific jobs and the ability to offer larger recruitment and retention bonuses.

NASA's management of contractors has been on GAO's high-risk list since 1990, "because of its ineffective systems and processes for overseeing contractor activities," Li told the panel. He said the agency has made "noteworthy progress" in improving contract management in recent years. NASA has developed new systems for monitoring the procurement-related activities of its field centers, and has cut back on allowing changes to contracts without negotiating costs and prices.

In fiscal 2002, NASA spent approximately $13 billion-85 percent of its budget-on contractors.

To better track how that money is spent, the agency has embarked on its third effort in recent years to create an integrated financial management system. The new system is expected to cost $861 million by the time it is completed in 2008. But because program managers were not involved in the development of the system, it is not being designed to integrate key cost and schedule data, Li said.

Marcia Smith, a specialist in aerospace policy at the Congressional Research Service, gave the panel a history of NASA's budget situation, but cautioned panel members that it would be difficult to directly tie budgetary changes to safety problems in shuttle operations.

Russell Turner, former CEO of United Space Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that runs shuttle operations, defended the work of the firms on the shuttle program.

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