GAO reports focused on NASA IT workforce issues

WASHINGTON -- In the wake of Saturday's crash of the space shuttle Columbia following its re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, reports about NASA's workforce management are raising questions about what, if anything, the agency may have done to contribute to the disaster.

Of particular interest is a September 2001 report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that specifically warned of potential safety issues stemming from engineering and IT staffing cutbacks that date back several years.

"The existing workforce was stretched thin to the point where many areas critical to shuttle safety, such as mechanical engineering, computer systems and software assurance engineering, were not sufficiently staffed by qualified workers," according to the GAO report, titled "Space Shuttle Safety."

The high-tech skill level of the shuttle workforce is a critical aspect of shuttle operations. NASA officials have described the space shuttle program as the most advanced aerospace platform in the world, in terms of its reliance on software and commercial computer technology for safe operation. It is so advanced, in fact, that very few maneuvers -- including those needed for a safe re-entry -- can be conducted by the pilot without direct support from the spacecraft's five on-board computers.

Despite its intense focus on IT and the manpower required to ensure safe execution of the 1.2 million separate processes that go into launching a shuttle, NASA reduced its overall workforce by almost 50%, from 3,000 to 1,800, between 1995 and 1999, according to the GAO.

Those cutbacks led to critical skills shortfalls, according to an internal workforce assessment. According to the GAO, the IT-based disciplines identified by NASA as suffering from skills shortages included guidance, navigation and control systems; computer systems; aircraft ground systems; IT security; software applications and systems; robotic systems; and software assurance engineering.

The GAO's 2001 criticism of NASA's software verification and validation program was not the first time the issue had been brought to NASA's attention. In 1999, the GAO repeated calls made by the National Research Council in the late 1980s urging NASA not to rely on the same commercial contractors to develop, verify and validate software components critical to the safe operation of the space shuttle.

"NASA has yet to commit to independent [verification and validation] for shuttle software development, and it has moved slowly in establishing policies and documenting existing practices," the 1999 GAO report concluded.

Despite those concerns, the GAO acknowledged that in 2000, NASA had taken steps to enhance its workforce by both hiring additional staff and ensuring that younger workers were groomed for future leadership positions.

However, a follow-up report by the GAO in November 2001 on NASA's strategic performance plans found that while the agency had included "human capital as a strategic objective," it did not "tie its performance goals and indicators to specific programs facing human capital shortages, such as the space shuttle program."

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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