The Space Power Facility at NASA Glenn Research Center's Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, houses the world's largest vacuum chamber. It measures 30 meters in diameter and is a towering 37 meters tall. Credit: Michelle Murphy

Unused Plum Brook Facilities are Part of a Larger Problem

A recent NASA inspector general’s report is the latest reminder that NASA’s longstanding issue with excess infrastructure, much of it built decades ago as part of the agency’s mobilization to land astronauts on the moon, isn’t going away.

The April 23 report focused on the large testing facilities at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, which is a part of the agency’s Lewis Research Center just down the road in Cleveland. According to the report, four of five large hardware-testing facilities at Plum Brook have no customers and are unlikely to get any in the foreseeable future.

These aging facilities cost money to maintain yet some have fallen into such disrepair that millions of dollars will be required for restoration. These costs will have to be borne by NASA or some future customer — both of which likely have cheaper alternatives available.

The problem is not unique to Plum Brook, of course. There is unused or underutilized infrastructure across NASA’s sprawling complex of centers, all of which continually fight for a share of a civil space program that simply isn’t big enough to go around.

NASA is well aware of this, but also knows that attempts to eliminate excess infrastructure are bound to invite the wrath of politicians whose perspectives rarely extend much beyond their home districts or states. Actually closing a center or associated facility is generally viewed as a political nonstarter and hasn’t been attempted in years.

The agency has made some progress in its efforts to shed excess facilities. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with help from the state, has done a good job of commercializing infrastructure on the site, while NASA recently leased a large, unused aircraft hangar managed by Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley to a company owned by tech giant Google.

But these are, for the most part, small victories that together barely make a dent in the overall problem.

The inspector general’s report called on NASA to come up with a strategy for either maintaining or disposing of unused infrastructure at Plum Brook, which receives roughly $31 million from NASA annually, most which comes from the agency’s Construction and Environmental Compliance account. NASA has pledged to present such a strategy to its associate administrator for mission support by September.

All options should be on the table in formulating the strategy, including closing Plum Brook altogether. That might not be feasible — one of Plum Brook’s major test installations has a solid book of business through at least 2021 — but the agency should at least examine whether it has other facilities that could accommodate those activities.

More broadly, whoever takes over the White House in January 2017 should take a fresh look at realigning and scaling back the centers to better fit with the agency’s current and anticipated missions.