NASA’s buildings are even older than its graying workforce

NASA's Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, formerly known as Plum Brook Station, is the world's largest space test chamber.
Enlarge / NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, formerly known as Plum Brook Station, is the world’s largest space test chamber.

It’s big news when a hurricane damages buildings at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center or hits a rocket factory in New Orleans. There’s damage that needs repairing immediately so missions can move forward to launch.

But there’s 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 “wholly underfunded.”

In his presentation to the National Academies committee, Weiser described NASA’s infrastructure as in an “increasing state of decline.” There’s a mismatch between what NASA needs to maintain or upgrade its facilities and the dollars the agency devotes to those efforts. The maintenance gap is $259 million per year using NASA’s most conservative estimate, or more than $600 million if NASA followed the maintenance practices of the commercial industry, Weiser said.

And the gap is growing. That has caused NASA’s facilities to “deteriorate over time,” Weiser said. “The majority of our facilities are beyond their useful life.”

“The trend is not good”

Weiser said 83 percent of NASA’s facilities are beyond their design life. That’s well above the percentage of NASA’s workers eligible for retirement, about 25 percent, which itself a significant worry for the space agency.

Funding for facility maintenance comes from disparate parts of NASA. Some of the money comes from specific mission directorates responsible for ensuring 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 important facilities are for success, so when they see an issue, it’s all hands on deck to fix that problem so they don’t impact the mission,” Weiser said.

But triaging maintenance needs can’t go on forever.

“We’re deferring projects year in and year out, and over the last four years, we’ve had to defer 78 projects,” Weiser said. “All that does is increase the risk on the maintenance side because a lot of those projects that were deferred were repair projects, whether it’s horizontal infrastructure, such as your electrical distribution, potable water, sanitary sewer, or it could be some other projects, major renovations to buildings and things like that.

“Without doing those projects, there’s more pressure on the maintenance side for unplanned failures that we have to take care of,” he said. “And many of those unplanned failures could lead to mission risk and missed milestones, and we don’t want that to happen.”

Weiser briefed 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 was one in 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’s facilities across the country are rated “marginal to poor” in condition, Weiser said. “This is not the laser table or a test stand in a building. This is the building that supports that test capability inside. … You can have a world-class microscope and materials lab, but if the building goes down, that microscope is useless to you.”