Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to be here today to discuss workforce and safety
issues facing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s
(NASA) space shuttle program. As requested for this hearing, we
have updated the information we provided to this Subcommittee in a
March 2000 testimony and in an August 2000 report.1 At the time, the
space shuttle program was at a critical juncture: its workforce had
declined significantly since 1995, its flight rate was to double over
that of recent years to support the assembly of the International
Space Station, and costly safety upgrades were planned to enhance
the space shuttle’s safe operation until at least 2012.

We reported that workforce reductions were jeopardizing NASA’s
ability to safely support the shuttle’s planned flight rate. For instance,
many areas critical to safety were not sufficiently staffed by qualified
workers. Recognizing the need to revitalize the shuttle’s workforce,
NASA terminated its downsizing plans for the shuttle program in
December 1999 and initiated efforts to hire new staff. Furthermore,
we also reported that NASA faced a number of programmatic and
technical challenges in its efforts to develop and begin equipping the
shuttle fleet with a variety of safety and supportability upgrades over
the next 5 years. These included a demanding schedule and
undefined design and workforce requirements.

Today, I will discuss NASA’s current progress in addressing these
workforce and safety issues and the challenges still ahead. In brief,
we found that NASA is making progress in revitalizing the shuttle
program’s workforce. NASA’s current budget request projects an
increase of more than 200 full-time equivalent staff through fiscal year
2002. NASA has also focused more attention on human capital
management in its annual performance plan by outlining an overall
strategy to attract and retain a skilled workforce. Even with these
gains, however, there are still considerable challenges ahead. For
example, because many of the additional staff are new hires, they will
require considerable training, and they will need to be effectively
integrated into the shuttle program. Also, NASA still needs to fully
staff areas critical to shuttle safety; deal with critical losses due to

retirements in the coming years; and, most of all, sustain
management attention to human capital reforms. NASA’s workforce
problems are not unique. Many agencies have also been contending
with serious human capital shortfalls. We recently added strategic
human capital management to our list of federal programs and
operations identified as high risk. Moreover, while NASA is making
strides in revitalizing its workforce, its ability to implement safety
upgrades in a timely manner is uncertain. NASA is still assessing the
full package of its planned improvements, and some projects have
already encountered funding and scheduling problems. Overcoming
challenges related to the upgrades is critical since NASA will be
relying on the space shuttle longer than originally anticipated.

Background

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 NASA’s other
space programs, such as the International Space Station. NASA operates
four orbiters in the shuttle fleet.

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 has emphasized that the top priority for the shuttle program is
safety.

The space shuttle’s workforce shrank from about 3,000 to about 1,800 full-time
equivalent employees from fiscal year 1995 through fiscal year 1999.
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. However, the
agency later concluded that these reductions caused shortages of
required personnel to perform in-house activities and maintain adequate
oversight of the contractor.

Since the shuttle’s first flight in 1981, the space shuttle 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 possibly through 2020. Accordingly, it has
established a development office to identify and prioritize upgrades to
maintain and improve shuttle operational safety.

Progress and Challenges
in Revitalizing the Shuttle Workforce

Last year, we reported that several internal studies showed that the
shuttle program’s workforce had been negatively affected by
downsizing.2 These studies concluded that the existing workforce was
stretched thin to the point where many areas critical to shuttle
safety-such as mechanical engineering, computer systems, and
software assurance engineering-were not sufficiently staffed by
qualified workers. (Appendix I identifies all of the key areas that were
facing staff shortages). Moreover, the workforce was showing signs of
overwork and fatigue. For example, indicators on forfeited leave,
absences from training courses, and stress-related employee
assistance visits were all on the rise. Lastly, the program’s
demographic shape had changed dramatically. Throughout the Office
of Space Flight, which includes the shuttle program, there were more
than twice as many workers over 60 years old than under 30 years
old. This condition clearly jeopardized the program’s ability to hand off
leadership roles to the next generation.

According to NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Office of Space

Flight, the agency faced significant safety and mission success risks
because of workforce issues. This was reinforced by NASA’s
Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, which concluded that workforce
problems could potentially affect flight safety as the shuttle launch
rate increased.

NASA subsequently recognized the need to revitalize its workforce
and began taking actions toward this end. In October 1999, NASA’s
Administrator directed the agency’s highest-level managers to consider
ways to reduce workplace stress. The Administrator later announced
the creation of a new office to increase the agency’s emphasis on
health and safety and included improved health monitoring as an
objective in its fiscal year 2001 performance plan.3 Finally, in
December 1999, NASA terminated its downsizing plans for the shuttle
program and initiated efforts to begin hiring new staff.

Following the termination of its downsizing plans, NASA and the
Office of Management and Budget conducted 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. In performing this review, NASA
used GAO’s human capital self-assessment checklist.4 The self-assessment
framework provides a systematic approach for identifying
and addressing human capital issues and allows agency managers to
(1) quickly determine whether their approach to human capital
supports their vision of who they are and what they want to
accomplish and (2) identify those policies that are in particular need
of attention. The checklist follows a five-part framework that includes
strategic planning, organizational alignment, leadership, talent, and
performance culture.

Recent Actions Taken by NASA

NASA has taken a number of actions this year to regenerate its
shuttle program workforce. Significantly, NASA’s current budget
request projects an increase of more than 200 full-time equivalent
staff 5 for the shuttle program through fiscal year 2002-both new
hires and staff transfers. According to NASA, from the beginning of
fiscal year 2000 through July 2001, the agency had actually added
191 new hires and 33 transfers to the shuttle program. These new
staff are being assigned to areas critical to shuttle safety-such as
project engineering, aerospace vehicle design, avionics, and
software-according to NASA. As noted earlier, appendix I provides a
list of critical skills where NASA is addressing personnel shortages.

NASA is also focusing more attention on human capital management
in its annual performance plan. The Government Performance and
Results Act requires a performance plan that describes how an
agency’s goals and objectives are to be achieved. These plans are to
include a description of the (1) operational processes, skills, and
technology and (2) human, capital and information resources required
to meet those goals and objectives. On June 9, 2000, the President
directed the heads of all federal executive branch agencies to fully
integrate human resources management into agency planning, budget,
and mission evaluation processes and to clearly state specific human
resources management goals and objectives in their strategic and
annual performance plans.

In its Fiscal Year 2002 Performance Plan, NASA describes plans to
attract and retain a skilled workforce. The specifics include the
following:

  • Developing an initiative to enhance NASA’s recruitment capabilities,
    focusing on college graduates.

  • Cultivating a continued pipeline of talent to meet future science, math, and
    technology needs.

  • Investing in technical training and career development.
  • Supplementing the workforce with nonpermanent civil servants, where it
    makes sense.

  • Funding more university-level courses and providing training in other core

    functional areas.

  • Establishing a mentoring network for project managers.
    We will provide a more detailed assessment of the agency’s progress in
    achieving its human capital goals as part of our review of NASA’s Fiscal
    Year 2002 Performance Plan requested by Senator Fred Thompson.

Alongside these initiatives, NASA is in the process of responding to a
May 2001 directive from the Office of Management and Budget on
workforce planning and restructuring.6 The directive requires executive
agencies to determine (1) what skills are vital to accomplishing their
missions, (2) how changes expected in the agency’s work will affect
human resources, (3) how skill imbalances are being addressed, (4)
what challenges impede the agency’s ability to recruit and retain high-quality
staff, and (5) what barriers there are to restructuring the
workforce. NASA officials told us that they have already made these
assessments. The next step is to develop plans specific to the space
flight centers that focus on recruitment, retention, training, and
succession and career development.

Remaining Workforce Challenges

If effectively implemented, the actions that NASA has been taking to
strengthen the shuttle workforce should enable the agency to carry
out its mission more safely. But there are considerable challenges
ahead. For example, as noted by the Aerospace Safety Advisory
Panel in its most recent annual report, NASA now has the difficult
task of training new employees and integrating them into
organizations that are highly pressured by the shuttle’s expanded flight
rates associated with the International Space Station. 7 As we
stressed in our previous testimony, training alone may take as long
as 2 years, while workload demands are higher than ever.

The panel also emphasized that (1) stress levels among some
employees are still a matter of concern; (2) some critical areas, such
as information technology and electrical/electronic engineering, are not
yet fully staffed; and (3) NASA is still contending with the retirements

of senior employees. Officials at Johnson Space Center also cited
critical skill shortages as a continuing problem. Furthermore, NASA
headquarters officials stated that the stress-related effects of the
downsizing remain in the workforce. Addressing these particular
challenges, according to the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, will
require immediate actions, such as expanded training at the Centers,
as well as a long-term workforce plan that will focus on retention,
recruitment, training, and succession and career development needs.

Human Capital Shortfalls-A Governmentwide Problem

The workforce problems we identified during our review are not
unique to NASA. As our January 2001 Performance and Accountability
Series reports made clear, serious federal human capital shortfalls
are now eroding the ability of many federal agencies-and threatening
the ability of others-to economically, efficiently, and effectively
perform their missions.8 As the Comptroller General recently stated in
testimony, the problem lies not with federal employees themselves,
but with the lack of effective leadership and management, along with
the lack of a strategic approach to marshaling, managing, and
maintaining the human capital needed for government to discharge its
responsibilities and deliver on its promises.9 To highlight the urgency
of this governmentwide challenge, in January 2001, we added
strategic human capital management to our list of federal programs
and operations identified as high risk.10
Our work has found human capital challenges across the federal
government in several key areas.

  • First, high-performing organizations establish a clear set of organizational

    intents-mission, vision, core values, goals and objectives, and
    strategies-and then integrate their human capital strategies to support
    these strategic and programmatic goals. However, under downsizing,
    budgetary, and other pressures, agencies have not consistently taken
    a strategic, results-oriented approach to human capital planning.

  • Second, agencies do not have the sustained commitment from leaders
    and managers needed to implement reforms. Achieving this can be
    difficult to achieve in the face of cultural barriers to change and high
    levels of turnover among management ranks.

  • Third, agencies have difficulties replacing the loss of skilled and
    experienced staff, and in some cases, filling certain mission-critical
    occupations because of increasing competition in the labor market.
    Fourth, agencies lack a crucial ingredient found in successful
    organizations: organizational cultures that promote high performance
    and accountability.

Progress and Challenges
in Making Shuttle Safety Upgrades

At this time last year, NASA planned to develop and begin equipping the
shuttle fleet with a variety of safety and supportability upgrades, at an
estimated cost of $2.2 billion. These upgrades would affect every aspect
of the shuttle system, including the orbiter, external tank, main engine, and
solid rocket booster.

Last year, we reported that NASA faced a number of programmatic and
technical challenges in making these upgrades.

  • First, several upgrade projects had not been fully approved, creating
    uncertainty within the program.

  • Second, while NASA had begun to establish a dedicated shuttle safety
    upgrade workforce, it had not fully determined its needs in this area.

  • Third, the shuttle program was subject to considerable scheduling
    pressure, which introduced the risk of unexpected cost increases,
    funding problems, and/or project delays. Specifically, the planned
    safety upgrade program could require developing and integrating at
    least nine major improvements in 5 years-possibly making it the most
    aggressive modification effort ever undertaken by the shuttle program.
    At the same time, technical requirements for the program were not yet
    fully defined, and upgrades were planned to coincide with the peak

    assembly period of the International Space Station.

Since then, NASA has made some progress but has only partially
addressed the challenges we identified last year. Specifically, NASA has
started to define and develop some specific shuttle upgrades. For
example, requirements for the cockpit avionics upgrade have been
defined. Also, Phase I of the main engine advanced health monitoring
system is in development, and Friction Stir Welding on the external tank is
being implemented.

In addition, according to Shuttle Development Office officials, staffing for
the upgrade program is adequate. Since our last report, these officials told
us that the Johnson Space Center has added about 70 people to the
upgrade program, while the Marshall Space Flight Center has added
another 50 to 60 people. We did not assess the quality or sufficiency of
the added staff, but according to the development office officials, the
workforce’s skill level has improved to the point where the program has a
“good” skill base.

Nevertheless, NASA has not yet fully defined its planned upgrades. The
studies on particular projects, such as developing a crew escape system,
are not expected to be done for some time. Moreover, our previous
concerns with the technical maturity and potential cost growth of particular
projects have proven to be warranted. For example, the implementation of
the electric auxiliary power unit has been delayed indefinitely because of
technical uncertainties and cost growth. Also, the estimated cost of Phase
II of the main engine advanced health monitoring system has almost
doubled, and NASA has canceled the proposed development of a Block III
main engine improvement because of technological, cost, and schedule
uncertainties.

Compounding the challenges that NASA is facing in making its
upgrades is the uncertainty surrounding its shuttle program. NASA is
attempting to develop alternatives to the space shuttle, but it is not
yet clear what these alternatives will be. We recently testified before
the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, House Committee on
Science on the agency’s Space Launch Initiative. This is a risk
reduction effort aimed at enabling NASA and industry to make a
decision in the 2006 time frame on whether the full-scale
development of a reusable launch vehicle can be undertaken.11

However, as illustrated by the difficulties NASA experienced with
another reusable launch vehicle demonstrator-the Lockheed Martin X-33-
an exact time frame for the space shuttle’s replacement cannot
be determined at this time. Consequently, shuttle workforce and
upgrade issues will need to be considered without fully knowing how
the program will evolve over the long run.
In conclusion, NASA has made a start at addressing serious workforce
problems that could undermine space shuttle safety. It has also begun
undertaking the important task of making needed safety and supportability
upgrades. Nevertheless, the challenges ahead are significant-particularly
because NASA is operating in an environment of uncertainty and it is still
contending with the effects of its downsizing effort. As such, it will be
exceedingly important that NASA sustain its attention and commitment to
making space shuttle operations as safe as possible.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be happy to answer
any questions that you or Members of the Subcommittee may have.

Contact and Acknowledgement

For further contact regarding this testimony, please contact Allen Li at
(202) 512-4841. Individuals making key contributions to this testimony
included Jerry Herley, John Gilchrist, James Beard, Fred Felder, Vijay
Barnabas, and Cristina Chaplain.

FOOTNOTES

1 See Space Shuttle: Human Capital Challenges Require Management Attention
(GAO/T-NSIAD-00-133, Mar. 22, 2000) and Space Shuttle: Human Capital and Safety
Upgrade Challenges Require Continued Attention (GAO/NSIAD/GGD-00-186, Aug. 15,
2000).

2 Several workforce studies had been completed since 1996, including Independent
Assessment of the Shuttle Processing Directorate Engineering and Management
Processes, NASA Human Exploration and Development of Space Independent
Assessment Office, (Nov. 4, 1999); Annual Report for 1999, Aerospace Safety Advisory
Panel (Feb. 2000); and Report to Associate Administrator, Office of Space Flight, Space
Shuttle Independent Assessment Team (Mar. 7, 2000).

3 The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 requires agencies to
prepare annual performance plans. The purpose is to improve the efficiency of
all federal agencies, under the goals of improving management, effectiveness,
and public accountability; improving congressional decision-making on where to
commit the nation’s fiscal and human resources; and improving citizens’
confidence in the government’s performance.

4 See Human Capital: A Self-Assessment Checklist for Agency Leaders
(GAO/OCG-00-14G, Sept. 2000).

5 Full-time equivalent is a measure of staff hours equal to those of an
employee who works 40 hours per week in 1 year. Thus, a measure of 200
full-time equivalent staff does not necessarily represent the actual number of
new hires.

6 Workforce Planning and Restructuring, OMB Bulletin No. 01-07 (May 8, 2001).

7 See Annual Report for 2000, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

8 See Performance and Accountability Series-Major Management Challenges and
Program Risks: A Governmentwide Perspective (GAO-01-241, Jan. 2001). In addition,
see the accompanying 21 reports (numbered GAO-01-242 through GAO-01-262) on
specific agencies.

9 See Human Capital: Taking Steps to Meet Current and Emerging Human Capital
Challenges (GAO-01-965T, July 17, 2001).

10 See High-Risk Series: An Update (GAO-01-263, Jan. 2001). In addition, see Human
Capital: Meeting the Governmentwide High-Risk Challenge (GAO-01-357T, Feb. 1,
2001).

11 See Space Transportation: Critical Areas NASA Needs to Address in Managing Its
Reusable Launch Vehicle Program (GAO-01-826T, June 20, 2001).

Appendix I: Space Shuttle
Program Skill Shortfall Areas

In December 1999, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) completed an internal workforce assessment focusing on the
Office of Space Flight, which includes the shuttle program. That
assessment identified work areas in which NASA was experiencing skill
shortfalls. At our request, NASA provided a listing of skill shortages in the
shuttle program. The areas the agency identified follow:

  • Program/project management/project engineering
  • Aerospace vehicle design and mission analysis
  • Avionics
  • Guidance, navigation, and control systems
  • Materials analysis
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Thermal control
  • Structural dynamics
  • Vehicle dynamics
  • Aircraft ground systems
  • Human factors
  • Environmental controls
  • Robotic systems
  • Computer systems
  • Fluids (liquid propulsion systems)
  • Information technology security
  • Aerospace systems test engineering
  • Software (applications and systems)
  • Sensors and transducers
  • Electrical engineering
  • Software assurance engineering
  • Flight assurance
  • Quality engineering
  • Reliability engineering
  • Safety engineering
  • Flight controls