— NASA is revamping six expert panels created to conduct independent reviews of its human spaceflight hardware-development programs following an internal auditor’s finding that each committee had at least one member with a vested interest in efforts they were assessing.
The panel members are at risk of violating procurement laws forbidding potential contract bidders from viewing internal agency information not available to the public, according to a report prepared by Evelyn R. Klemstine, NASA assistant inspector general for auditing.
“NASA’s inadequate process and procedures for determining a [standing review board] member’s independence and freedom from conflicts of interest resulted in NASA not taking the precautions required by the Procurement Integrity Act to prevent disclosure of confidential source selection information,” Klemstine wrote in the report.
The report, “NASA’s Constellation Standing Review Boards Established Without Due Regard for Member Independence Requirements,” was released Feb. 25. Constellation is the broad program that encompasses the hardware NASA is developing to replace the space shuttle and eventually return astronauts to the Moon.
NASA has suspended meetings of the so- called standing review boards while the agency rebuilds their memberships. But the report said the issue already has caused the agency to terminate a contract for the next- generation spacesuit amid allegations of “procurement irregularities,” and warned that a bid solicitation for a major Constellation ground processing contract set for release this spring could face suspicion of procurement law violations.
The six review boards, composed of government and nongovernment experts, were tasked with periodically meeting to assess various aspects of the Constellation program including schedule, cost and technical milestones. Major elements of Constellation are the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher, the heavy-lift Ares 5 rocket and the Altair lunar lander.
Some of the nongoverment members are paid, while others volunteer their time, said NASA spokesman David Steitz.
The inspector general’s investigation found that 21 of the 66 nongovernment members on the six review boards – for Ares, Orion, the next-generation spacesuit, ground operations, mission operations and the overall Constellation program – either consulted or worked for contractors with ties to the program.
In some cases, Orion being a prominent example, the audit identified members who were employed by or held stock in contractors on the program they were tasked to review. Other cases involved members who were appointed before their companies entered competition for Constellation work.
Conflicts of this type are not uncommon in specialized areas where the pool of experts is relatively small, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council, a trade association based in The key is to disclose the conflicts up front and determine on a case-by-case basis whether to allow a board member to participate, he said.
“It’s very easy to take a pristine position and say we ought to preclude all conflict, and in many cases you can do just that,” Chvotkin said. “Then there’s the specialized skills where the universe to draw from is pretty narrow.”
NASA could avoid some of the conflict challenges by drawing from expertise at other government agencies like the U.S. Air Force or National Reconnaissance Office, Chvotkin said.
The majority of members on NASA’s Constellation review boards – 90 of 156 members – are government employees. NASA appoints nongovernment members to tap industry’s knowledge and experience. Conflicts of interest have arisen from a screening process “lacking in both rigor and accuracy for determining independence,” the report said.
Final approval of review board members came from senior NASA management up to the associate administrator level. But the report blamed the agency’s Independent Program Assessment Office (IPAO), part of the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, for setting up the boards without consulting the agency’s general counsel.
In response to the inspector general’s findings, NASA suspended the work of all six standing review boards last fall, said NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz. NASA is developing a new process for reviewing board membership that complies with federal laws governing federal advisory committees, she said.
“We are now in the process of implementing the new policy and realigning the Constellation program and project boards accordingly. This realignment process includes a conflict screening.”
The report warns, however, that it might already be too late to head off a potential conflict issue involving a major Contellation ground processing contract at NASA’s in , the request for proposals for which is scheduled to be released in the coming months. The report said one of the board members for the Constellation ground operations program works for ASRC Aerospace of Greenbelt, Md., a potential bidder for the contract. The member, who has had access to information during life-cycle reviews that is not available to the public, would be in violation of procurement laws if that information were used in compiling ASRC’s bid, the report said.
In the case involving the award in June of a $745 million spacesuit contract to Oceaneering International of Houston, the conflict was enough to prompt a bid protest by Exploration Systems and Technology (EST), a joint venture of longtime spacesuit manufacturers Hamilton Sundstrand of Windsor Locks, , and ILC Dover of Frederica, During the protest, NASA’s inspector general identified two spacesuit review board members who worked for Oceaneering subcontractors.
The protest forced NASA to reopen the procurement, and Oceaneering and EST eventually agreed to join forces. NASA has awarded a letter contract to the Oceaneering-led team and expects to complete negotiations by August.
The inspector general report said NASA management had been responsive to its recommendations, but said the findings would not be considered resolved until NASA completes it new guidelines for standing review boards.
NASA intends to re-establish the Constellation standing review boards by April 30 and verify board members’ independence annually, the report said.