It’s big news when a hurricane damages buildings at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center or hits a rocket factory in New Orleans. There is damage that needs to be repaired immediately so that missions can continue to launch.
But there is a deeper problem with NASA’s infrastructure. Erik Weiser, director of NASA’s facilities and real estate division, told a blue-ribbon National Academies panel Thursday that the agency’s budget for maintenance and construction is “completely underfunded.”
In his presentation to the National Academies committee, Weiser described NASA’s infrastructure as being in an “increasing state of decline.” There is a mismatch between what NASA needs to maintain or upgrade its facilities and the dollars the agency allocates to those efforts. The maintenance gap is $259 million annually using NASA’s most conservative estimate, or more than $600 million if NASA followed commercial industry maintenance practices, Weiser said.
And the gap is widening. That’s why NASA facilities “deteriorate over time,” Weiser said. “Most of our facilities are beyond their useful lives.”
Weiser said 83 percent of NASA facilities are beyond their design life. That’s more than the percentage of NASA workers eligible for retirement, about 25 percent, which itself is a significant concern for the space agency.
Funding for the maintenance of the facility comes from various parts of NASA. Some of the money comes from specific mission directors responsible for ensuring that launch pads, test stands, and other facilities are in good shape for operations at NASA’s field centers. Other resources come from a general overhead fund.
“Each center knows what their most critical facilities are for success, so when they see an issue, everyone is on deck to fix that problem so they don’t impact the mission,” Weiser said. .
But trying to maintain needs doesn’t go on forever.
“We defer projects every year, and in the last four years, we’ve had to defer 78 projects,” Weiser said. “All that can do is increase the risk in terms of maintenance because many of the projects that have been deferred are repair projects, if it’s horizontal infrastructure, like your distribution of electricity, water drinking water, sanitary sewer, or maybe other projects, major renovations of buildings and things like that.
“Without doing the projects, there is more pressure on the maintenance side for unplanned failures that we have to take care of,” he said. “And many of those unplanned failures can lead to mission endangerment and missed milestones, and we don’t want that to happen.”
Weiser announced a National Academies panel chartered to examine the critical facilities, workforce, and technology needed to achieve NASA’s long-term strategic goals and objectives. Thursday’s briefing is one of a series of public meetings the committee will hold before issuing a final report with recommendations to improve the situation. NASA leadership, lawmakers, and White House budget officials are expected to review the report.
The majority of NASA facilities across the country are rated as “marginal to poor” in condition, Weiser said. “It’s not the laser table or a test stand in a building. It’s the building that supports the testing capability inside. … You can have a world-class microscope and materials lab, but if the building is falling, that microscope is useless to you.”