Note: this transmittal letter is an excerpt from Space Shuttle: Human Capital and Safety Upgrade Challenges Require Continued Attention, GAO/NSIAD/GGD-00-186, August 15. [300K Adobe Acrobat file ]


August 15, 2000

The Honorable John McCain

Chairman, Committee on Commerce, Science,
and Transportation

United States Senate

Dear Mr. Chairman:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) space shuttle
program is at a critical juncture as three key factors converge: its
workforce has declined significantly since 1995, its flight rate will have to
double over that of recent years to support assembly of the International
Space Station, and costly safety upgrades are being planned to enhance the
space shuttle’s safe operation until at least 2012.

As agreed with your office, we examined workforce and safety issues
facing NASA and its shuttle program. Specifically, we assessed the impact
of workforce reductions on the shuttle program, the challenges NASA faces
in addressing workforce issues, and the status of planned shuttle safety and
supportability upgrades.

Results in Brief

Several internal NASA studies have shown that the shuttle program’s
workforce has been affected negatively by the downsizing, much of which
occurred after 1995. Since 1995, the shuttle workforce has decreased by
more than one-third to about 1,800 full-time equivalent employees.1 The
shuttle program has identified many key areas that are not sufficiently
staffed by qualified workers, and the remaining workforce shows signs of
overwork and fatigue. For example, indicators on forfeited leave, absences
from training courses, and stress-related employee assistance visits are all
on the rise. Moreover, the program’s demographic shape has changed. For
example, throughout the Office of Space Flight, which includes the shuttle
program, there are more than twice as many workers over 60 years old than
under 30 years old. This jeopardizes the program’s ability to hand off

leadership roles to the next generation and achieve a higher flight rate to
support assembly of the International Space Station. In addition, according
to NASA, it poses significant shuttle program flight safety risks.

NASA has recognized the need to revitalize its workforce. For example, in
December 1999, it terminated shuttle program downsizing plans and
initiated efforts to begin hiring new staff. In addition, NASA and the Office
of Management and Budget have begun an overall workforce review to
examine personnel needs, barriers to achieving proper staffing levels and
skill mixes, and potential reforms to help address the agency’s long-term
requirements. NASA human resource officials told us that they are now
using a draft checklist we recently published as a guide 2 in ongoing
workforce planning and in discussions with the Office of Management and
Budget. The checklist includes a five-part framework: strategic planning,
organizational alignment, leadership, talent, and performance culture. The
guide should help NASA to more clearly establish a linkage between human
capital programs and the agency’s mission, goals, and strategies.

In addition, the Government Performance and Results Act requires a
performance plan that describes how an agency’s goals and objectives are
to be achieved.3 These plans are to include a description of the
(1) operational processes, skills, and technology and (2) human, capital,
information, and other resources required to meet goals and objectives. In
reviewing NASA’s fiscal year 2000 annual performance plan, we found that
the plan does not adequately describe how the agency’s strategies and
human capital resources will help it achieve performance goals.4 NASA’s
fiscal year 2001 plan, however, addresses at least some human capital
issues in that it includes an objective to improve workforce health
monitoring. In addition, in June 2000, the President directed the heads of all
executive branch federal agencies to integrate human resource
management into planning, budgeting, and mission evaluation processes.
The directive requires each agency to include specific human resource
management goals and objectives in its strategic and annual performance
plans beginning October 1, 2000.

Concerning safety issues, over the next 5 years, NASA plans to develop and
begin equipping the shuttle fleet with a variety of safety and supportability
upgrades, at an estimated cost of about $2.2 billion. The potential safety
upgrades are estimated to cost $1.6 billion and are expected to enhance
shuttle system safety significantly.5 Improvements could include an electric
auxiliary power unit, improved orbiter avionics, and main engine
modifications. However, to implement the program successfully, NASA will
have to overcome a number of programmatic and technical challenges,
such as a demanding schedule and undefined design and workforce
requirements. During the summer of 2000, NASA plans to independently
review the shuttle program’s safety upgrade strategy to assess how funding
can be used most effectively to improve space shuttle safety. NASA also has
an ongoing supportability upgrade program that is intended to address the
effects of aging components on the system. NASA estimates that it will
spend about $630 million through fiscal year 2005 to develop and
incorporate the supportability upgrades, which include the electronic
assembly in the solid rocket booster and insulation of the external tank.

While the President’s June 2000 directive provides further emphasis on the
need to integrate human capital requirements with the strategic planning
process, continued management emphasis will be critical to the success of
NASA’s human capital planning. In addition, NASA will need to take steps
to ensure it has the right people to manage the shuttle program.

Because the President has now directed NASA and all other executive
branch agencies to include human capital goals and objectives in their
strategic and annual performance plans, we are not making
recommendations in this report. We will monitor NASA’s progress in
establishing and achieving its human capital goals as part of our annual
performance plan assessments. NASA reviewed a draft of this report but
provided no comments.


The space shuttle is the world’s first reusable space transportation system.
It consists of a reusable orbiter with three main engines, two partially
reusable solid rocket boosters, and an expendable external fuel tank. Since
it is the nation’s only launch system capable of carrying people to and from
space, the shuttle’s viability is important to other space programs, such as
the International Space Station. NASA operates four orbiters in the shuttle

NASA budget data shows that from fiscal year 1995 through fiscal year
1999, the space shuttle’s workforce shrank from about 3,000 to about 1,800
full-time equivalent employees. A major element of this workforce
reduction was the transfer of shuttle launch preparation and maintenance
responsibilities from the government and multiple contractors to a single
private contractor. NASA believed that consolidating shuttle operations
under a single contract would allow it to reduce the number of engineers,
technicians, and inspectors directly involved in the day-to-day oversight of
shuttle processing, and it restructured its organization accordingly.
However, the agency now recognizes that it has shortages of required
personnel to perform in-house activities and maintain adequate oversight
of the contractor. In December 1999, NASA terminated its shuttle program
downsizing efforts and initiated efforts to begin hiring new staff.

Space systems are inherently risky because of the technology involved and
the complexity of their activities. For example, thousands of people
perform about 1.2 million separate procedures to prepare a shuttle for
flight. NASA’s top priority for the shuttle program is safety. Since the
shuttle’s first flight in 1981, the program has developed and incorporated
many modifications to improve performance and safety. These include a
super lightweight external tank, cockpit display enhancements, and main
engine safety and reliability improvements. In 1994, NASA stopped
approving additional upgrades pending the potential replacement of the
shuttle with another reusable launch vehicle. NASA now believes that it
will have to maintain the current shuttle fleet until at least 2012 and has
established a development office to identify and prioritize upgrades to
maintain and improve shuttle operational safety.


1 Full-time equivalent is a measure of staff hours equal to those of an employee who works
40 hours per week in 1 year.

2 Human Capital: A Self-Assessment Checklist for Agency Leaders (GAO/GGD-99-179,
Sept. 1999).

3 Section 4(b) of Public Law 103-62, Aug. 3, 1993, 31 U.S.C. 1115.

4 Observations on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Fiscal Year 2000
Performance Plan (GAO/NSIAD-99-186R, July 20, 1999).

5 NASA has not yet fully approved the set of upgrades it will include in the program.