Tim Furniss/LONDON

Total costs of the International Space Station (ISS) could eventually balloon to $95 billion, according to a US General Accounting Office (GAO) review of NASA's "management challenges and programme risks".

The original Space Station concept was given the go-ahead in 1984 and since then has been subject to several re-designs and delays. The original eight-year programme was to have cost $8 billion, with completion by 1992.

Estimated ISS costs had risen to $27.5 billion by 1995, when NASA signed an additional $5.63 billion contract with Boeing for the present ISS configuration to be finished by 2002.

The GAO reveals that cost overruns in the present ISS programme already amount to almost $1 billion, in addition to Boeing's cost rise to $9 billion by 1999-2000. The ISS is now unlikely to be completed until late 2006, requiring at least 30 Space Shuttle missions. Further cost increases are likely. Even when operational in 2006, it will cost NASA about$13 billion to operate the station until 2013.

In addition, Boeing has recently advised NASA of its intention to submit additional claims of $200-$300 million.

NASA "is continuing to rely on undefined change orders", the report says. Contracts "to complete work on its largest space station" are changing as new work is initiated before NASA and the contractor agree on a final estimated cost and fee. This "is a risky way of doing business because it increases the potential for unforeseen cost increases and scheduling delays", the GAO says.

The GAO criticises NASA for transferring money from science programmes to the ISS. It also says there are inadequate plans to make up for delays or losses of major ISS components. For example, the Destiny laboratory module, due to be launched on 6 February, does not have a back-up.

The GAO report also cites bad NASA management, poor engineering practices and budget pressures in its "faster, better, cheaper" approach to space exploration. NASA needs "effective financial management as well as cost controls, particularly for the Space Station programme", the GAO says.

In addition, the report says the Space Shuttle programme suffers from a lack of qualified workers, and the workforce shows signs of overwork and fatigue. The demographic shape and skill mix jeopardises the ability to "hand-off" leadership roles to the next generation and to achieve a higher flight rate to support the assembly of the ISS, says the GAO.

The failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999 illustrated that opportunities to resolve problems prior to launch were missed and senior management was unaware of any problems, the report says.

Until NASA resolves these deficiencies, the agency's "faster, better, cheaper" approach may not achieve its objectives, and NASA's ineffective use of financial resources will continue, the GAO says.

NASA administrator Dan Goldin, head of the space agency through the George Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, has been asked to stay on while his replacement is decided.

Source: Flight International