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By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com

The General Accounting Office issued a report one day ahead of the shuttle Columbia disaster questioning NASA’s ability to maintain sufficient staffing and expertise levels to ensure continued safety for shuttle operations. In the report, the GAO labels NASA a “high risk” government agency and notes that it faces “considerable challenges” in effectively administering its biggest programs.

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The “human capital” shortfall within NASA is so critical that the GAO says if left unchecked the problem could jeopardize the agency’s “ability to safely support the shuttle’s planned flight rate.”

NASA has struggled with a dwindling work force for years. In December of 1999, the agency promised to beef up the shuttle’s work force and discontinued its downsizing plans for the shuttle program.

A January 2001 GAO report said that the shuttle’s work force had declined to the point of “reducing NASA’s ability to safely support the shuttle program.” Some 3,000 of NASA’s total work force of 19,000 worked on the shuttle program for much of the 1990s, but that had dwindled to about 1,800 in recent years.

In September of 2001, NASA hired nearly 200 full-time staff members to try and address the staffing shortfall. But in a report later that year, the GAO said even with the new staff, challenges remained because the new hires would “require considerable training” and that the influx of these employees did nothing to address “critical losses due to retirement in the coming years.”

The 200 new hires “helped address” the critical staffing needs in the shuttle program, the GAO report says, but shortages in “many key areas still remain a problem,” according the report. Among those key areas are subsystems engineering, flight software engineering and electrical engineering.

Though NASA has made some effort to better manage its “human capital” problem, the GAO report says that despite all of NASA’s efforts in this area the challenges “have not been mitigated, and work climate indicators continue to reflect high levels of job stress.”

Racing toward gray
In a telling statistic, the GAO notes that the average age of the NASA work force is 45 years. At the same time, NASA is “finding it particularly difficult to hire” those with the skill sets they need to work in such a demanding environment, the report says. Within NASA’s science and engineering work force the over-60 population outnumbers the under-30-something crowd nearly 3-to-1, the report says. Worse: Nearly 15 percent of the current science and engineering staff is eligible to retire; inside five years, about 25 percent will hit the retirement benchmark, the report says. Meanwhile, the “pipeline of people with science and engineering skills is shrinking.”

NASA is not ignoring the criticisms, the report notes, and has launched an aggressive program to retain and train current staff.

Cost controls, oversight needed
Beyond the personnel issues, NASA needs to get a handle on its overall costs and management of its outside contracts, for which it spends $12.7 billion (90 percent of its budget), the report says.

Although NASA is desperately dependent on these contractors, it has been unable to oversee contracts effectively, principally because it lacked accurate and reliable information on contract spending and it placed little emphasis on end results, product performance, and cost control,” the report says.

The lax oversight on contractors has plagued NASA since 1990 and has been noted as a “high risk” area by GAO every year since. This problem could allow shoddy and subpar work to be passed through to the program or simply ignored because of NASA’s inability to keep close tabs on its contractors.

The GAO report notes that over the years its investigators have “demonstrated just how debilitating these weaknesses in contract management and oversight can be to important space programs.”

And in what has become an all-too-familiar chorus now when dealing with NASA, the GAO notes that though the agency has “addressed many of the acquisition-related weaknesses” in its contract system, “considerable work remains to be done.”

Part of the problem: NASA’s financial system is a cyber-soup of mismatched computer systems and databases, none of which talk to each other.

“The agency’s financial management environment is comprised of decentralized, nonintegrated systems with policies, procedures, and practices that are unique to its field centers,” the report says. “For the most part, data formats are not standardized, automated systems are not interfaced, and on-line financial information is not readily available to program managers.”

Cult of peculiarity
NASA loves to think of itself as a family; some wags have dubbed it a “cult of peculiarity” in which a scientifically incestuous organization rallies around any abnormality in an effort to insulate “the program” from outside scrutiny, interference or oversight.

Such a close-knit “family” is advantageous in many ways, but it also breeds a sameness of thinking, cementing the “old ways” sacrificing new ideas, technologies on the altar of “this is how it’s always been done.”

The Columbia disaster, like that of the Challenger before it and Apollo 1 before that, will shake the NASA to its core if for no other reason than everyone involved will take the loss personally.

The GAO report notes that such a shake-up is desirable in order to jog the lumbering space agency onto a swifter, more efficient track.

“NASA’s management challenges reflect a deeper need for broad cultural change within the agency,” the GAO report says. “Particularly important is the need to shift its overall orientation from processes to results; stovepipes to matrixes; hierarchical to flatter and more horizontal structures; management control to employee empowerment; and reactive behavior to proactive approaches.”

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