WASHINGTON — Cash-strapped but flush with idle infrastructure, NASA may need help from an independent group similar to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) to overcome the political obstacles to closing facilities it no longer needs, the agency’s inspector general said.

During a more than yearlong audit that wrapped up in December, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) — the agency’s internal yet independent watchdog — examined 153 facilities at various NASA centers and found at least 33 that were “underutilized or for which NASA officials could not identify a future mission-related use,” according to a Feb. 12 report.

Some of these facilities have been “mothballed,” meaning that NASA maintains only essential systems, while others have been leased to outside users to pay for upkeep without expending NASA funds. The OIG’s report specifically mentioned six wind tunnels, 14 rocket test stands, four thermal vacuum chambers, two airfields, and space shuttle launch infrastructure.

The OIG concluded that even NASA’s “best efforts to address these challenges may be insufficient to overcome the cultural and political obstacles to eliminating or consolidating Agency facilities and that an outside process similar to [the Defense Department’s] Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) may be necessary.”

In BRAC proceedings, an independent panel — appointed by the president with the Senate’s consent — recommends a plan for eliminating unneeded Defense Department facilities. The president and Congress must approve the commission’s recommendations, but neither the White House nor lawmakers have direct influence on the panel. The BRAC process, created by Congress in 1988, has so far been used only to consolidate military facilities.

NASA has no internal mechanism for BRAC-style consolidation. The closest analog within the agency is the Mission Support Directorate, which Administrator Charles Bolden created in 2010 to oversee personnel and infrastructure issues across NASA’s 10 field centers.

In a demonstration of the political sensitivity associated with NASA infrastructure, Bolden found himself before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee on March 20 defending a decision to consolidate certain heat shield testing at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Both the Ames Arc Jet Complex and Johnson Space Center’s Atmospheric Reentry Materials and Structures Evaluation Facility in Houston have hypersonic wind tunnels known as arc jets that are capable of producing the extreme aerodynamic and heating environments a spacecraft would experience as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. The arc jet facilities are used to test heat shields and other thermal protection systems.

“I am almost there, I am oh-so-close to having the arc jet facility from the Johnson Space Center delivered to the Ames Research Center, because that’s where it should be as we look for more efficient, effective ways to do our job,” Bolden said during the March 20 hearing.

Bolden joked that he waited to mention the arc jet until Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) arrived at the hearing, “in case he wanted to shoot me.” Culberson’s Houston-area district does not include Johnson, but the congressman nevertheless said he was concerned about the decision to shut down the center’s arc jet facility.

Still, Bolden vowed to go through with transferring Johnson’s arc jet equipment to Ames “if it’s the last thing I do as the NASA administrator, which it may be.”

Also at the hearing, Bolden discussed another NASA effort to cut spending on idle infrastructure, one that involves Ames’ Moffett Federal Airfield and a massive airship hangar built in the 1930s.

Bolden told House appropriators that the agency is not using Hangar One, but that declaring the building excess property would take years under federal regulations.

Bolden therefore opted to look for a private tenant to fix up the aging structure, which NASA does not plan to use anymore. A request for proposals to lease Hangar One is expected by May.

“If anybody who wants to use this facility for something that we can relate to, stuff that NASA does, and in the process [repair] the hangar, because it is such a historical landmark to the community out there, then we will offer it,” Bolden said.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat whose district includes Moffett Federal Airfield, praised NASA’s decision to keep the airfield open and to look for a tenant willing to rehabilitate Hangar One. Eshoo announced the decision following a Feb. 26 meeting with officials from NASA, the General Services Administration and the White House.

Bolden, in discussing the arc-jet consolidation and Hangar One lease, alluded to the political difficulties of making any changes at all to NASA infrastructure. “If you’re talking about land and facilities, there is always controversy,” Bolden said at the March 20 hearing.

A former NASA administrator put it more bluntly.

“It’s politically impossible for an agency head even to consider closing a major facility,” Mike Griffin, who preceded Bolden as head of NASA, told SpaceNews. “It just can’t be done, because the Congress will not allow it.”

Griffin said if NASA field centers had to be closed, a BRAC-style process might work — provided the consolidation effort included all civilian research facilities, and not just NASA’s.

“There would have to be a nationwide civilian BRAC, analogous to the [Defense Department] BRAC,” Griffin said. “Then you might be able to do it. No one agency could do it by itself.”

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...