NASA research facilities need investment

NASA's faces serious problems unless Congress commits funds to upgrade and better maintain the agency's aging research facilities.


NASA's basic research capabilities are lagging to the point that they're putting the space agency's missions in jeopardy, according to a National Research Council report released this week. The council, associated with the National Academy of Science, the National Acadenmy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, Tuesday called on Congress and NASA to upgrade the space agency's research equipment and operations.

The report noted that more than 80% of the research facilities at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, Glenn Research Centre, Langley Research Centre, Ames Research Centre, Marshall Space Flight Centre and Jet Propulsion Laboratory are more than 40 years old and need "significant" upgrades and improvements to annual maintenance procedures. The council also found that the declining state of NASA's research facilities has forced the agency to increasingly rely on third-party contractors to work on projects.

"Solid basic research has always been a critical component for advancing NASA's missions," said John Best, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, in a statement. "To ensure future success, it's imperative that NASA restore and maintain its basic research laboratories."

The report does not say how much NASA needs to spend to upgrade its facilities. NASA officials have not yet responded to a request for comment on the report.

The report comes on the heels of the release of President Barack Obama's proposed budget that calls for NASA to abandon plans to return humans to the moon and instead focus on sending astronauts to Mars and further into the solar system. The proposed fiscal 2011 federal budget also calls for having NASA contract with commercial companies to build space taxis.

The administration's plan, though, does call for spending more money on robotics research, and for developing next generation engines to run the commercially built spacecraft. Yesterday's report might put another crimp in the administration's plans if money needs to be rerouted to upgrading NASA's research facilities.

According to the report from the National Research Council, NASA is looking at a "staggering" repair and maintenance bill to upgrade and maintain its facilities. Federal funding for maintenance, repairs, and upgrades of NASA research facilities is currently "well below" accepted industry guidelines.

This maintenance problem already poses safety issues, especially for personnel working with NASA's massive, high-powered equipment. "NASA should find a solution to these issues before any catastrophic failures occur that could seriously impact missions and research operations," the report adds.

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