NASA OIG Finds Space Shuttle Disposition Selection Process to be Sound

In an audit released today, the NASA Office of Inspector General reports that the space agency followed the law in deciding to place retired space shuttle orbiters at facilities in Florida, Virginia, New York and California and found no evidence of political influence on the decision-making process.

In summary, we found that NASA’s decisions regarding Orbiter placement were the result of an Agency-created process that emphasized above all other considerations locating the Orbiters in places where the most people would have the opportunity to view them….

We found no evidence that the Team’s recommendation or the Administrator’s decision were tainted by political influence or any other improper consideration….We also found that NASA’s process was consistent with applicable Federal law.

The investigation was requested by members of Congress who were upset that centers in their states were bypassed. The complaints were primarily about the decision not to place orbiters at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, where Mission Control is located, and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

The OIG did find a scoring error that brought the U.S. Air Force Museum into a numerical tie with the Kennedy Visitor Center and the Intrepid Air & Space Museum, both of which received space shuttles. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was unaware of the error when he accepted without alteration a selection committee’s recommendation to locate the shuttles at the four sites selected.  Bolden told OIG that he would not have altered the decision even if he had known because “he believes the chosen locations will best serve NASA’s goal to spur interest in science, technology, and space exploration.”

An excerpt from the audit follows. You can read the full report here.

In summary, we found that NASA’s decisions regarding Orbiter placement were the result of an Agency-created process that emphasized above all other considerations locating the Orbiters in places where the most people would have the opportunity to view them. The Agency was not required to and did not consider a location’s ties to the Space Shuttle Program but, as directed by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, considered whether the chosen locations had a connection to NASA’s human spaceflight program.

With regard to its process, in response to the 2008 NASA Authorization Act the Agency provided to Congress a written disposition plan outlining its intentions to solicit information from interested parties and to use that information to determine where to place the Orbiters. In accordance with this plan, the Agency’s Recommendation Team reviewed the information received in response to the RFIs, conducted additional research, scored the applicants on factors (such as annual museum attendance, regional population, access to international visitors, and ability to meet NASA’s delivery schedule), and made a recommendation to the Administrator that, in addition to the Smithsonian, he select the three highest-scoring applicants. However, we found that the Team made several errors during its evaluation process, including one that would have resulted in a numerical “tie” among the Intrepid, the Kennedy Visitor Complex, and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (Air Force Museum) in Dayton, Ohio. Bolden told the OIG that had he been aware of this tie, he would have made the same decision regarding Orbiter placement because he believes the chosen locations will best serve NASA’s goal to spur interest in science, technology, and space exploration.

We found no evidence that the Team’s recommendation or the Administrator’s decision were tainted by political influence or any other improper consideration. While the Administrator was subject to a great deal of pressure from members of Congress and other interested parties, we found no evidence that this pressure had any influence on the Administrator’s ultimate decision on where to place the Orbiters. Moreover, we found no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden’s decision making. We also found that NASA’s process was consistent with applicable Federal law.

However, we found that some of the choices NASA made during the selection process – specifically, its decision to manage aspects of the selection as if it were a competitive procurement and to delay announcement of its placement decisions until April 2011 (more than 2 years after it first solicited information from interested entities) – may intensify challenges to the Agency and the selectees as they work to complete the process of placing the Orbiters in their new homes.

While we are not making specific recommendations for corrective action, we believe that as NASA completes this process, the Agency should:

  • expeditiously review recipients’ financial, logistical, and curatorial display plans to ensure they are feasible and consistent with the Agency’s educational goals and processing and delivery schedules;
  • ensure that recipient payments are closely coordinated with processing schedules, do not impede NASA’s ability to efficiently prepare the Orbiters for museum display, and provide sufficient funds in advance of the work to be performed; and
  • work closely with the recipient organizations to minimize the possibility of delays in the delivery schedule that could increase the Agency’s costs or impact other NASA missions and priorities.