Senate report slams NASA management practices

Posted: June 7, 2001

A Senate committee report released this week sharply criticized NASA's handling of key programs, calling it one of the worst examples of mismanagement in the entire federal government.

The report "Government at the Brink", released Tuesday by the Government Affairs Committee of the U.S. Senate, listed NASA fourth on a list of top ten worst examples of government mismanagement, stating that a wide range of problems within the space agency has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

"In spectacular example after example, NASA lost billions because of mismanagement of some of its biggest programs," the report claimed.

The report's criticism of NASA was based on the general theme that the space agency had difficulty handling large projects, such as the International Space Station, the X-33, and the 1999 failures of two key Mars missions. "Because of its size and the complexity of its operations," it stated, "NASA suffers from some substantial management problems."

The report cited a litany of other management problems within the agency, ranging from poor computer security and bookkeeping practices to widely varying costs for mundane office supplies paid by the various NASA field centers. The report also criticized NASA for its reduction in the number of workers involved with the shuttle program, saying that the cuts had created "an overworked and fatigued" workforce that increases the possibility of an accident.

"These management problems exact a terrible toll on public trust and confidence in the federal government," said Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN), the outgoing chairman of the Government Affairs Committee, in a statement about the overall report. "The federal government's core management problems have persisted for years, and, in fact, have grown worse."

While the report took a broad view of NASA's management problems, it provided few new details, citing instead well-known examples such as the growing cost estimates for the International Space Station and the recent cancellation of the X-33. The report also declined to make any recommendations for reforms for NASA or other government agencies, leaving that task to the Office of Management and Budget.

The report also contained a number of errors. Two separate sections in the two-volume report claim that NASA's Mars Polar Lander mission was lost because of a failure to convert between English and metric units properly. In fact, it was the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft that was lost in the fall of 1999 because of a miscommunication of measurement units between engineering teams. Mars Polar Lander is thought to have failed when its descent engine shut down prematurely, a problem not related to a units conversion issue.

The report was released Tuesday, the last day Sen. Thompson chaired the committee. Thompson is losing control of the committee as part of a sweeping set of changes instigated last month when Vermont Senator James Jeffords switched his party affiliation from Republican to independent, handing control of the Senate to the Democratic Party, who officially took over leadership positions on Wednesday. Some have speculated that the report was rushed out on Tuesday so that Thompson could still claim credit for the report as committee chairman.

Other government agencies and programs guilty of gross mismanagement, according to the report, include the Defense Department, Energy Department, Internal Revenue Service, and Medicare. The worst program on the committee's top-ten list was "The Big Dig", a highway reconstruction project in downtown Boston whose cost estimates have more than quintupled.