NASA’s Office of Inspector General has published its audit of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program. The audit found that the program is tasked with doing too much with too little. ABC, CBS, and NBC made news of this finding as follows: “NASA Inspector Blasts Asteroid Protection Program” (ABC) “NASA Inspector General blasts asteroid detection program” (CBS) “NASA’s watchdog office criticizes NASA’s asteroid-hunting program” (NBC) In my humble opinion, these stories (and the others that copied and followed) are a tad misleading. Here’s what the IG’s report says:
- “Existing NEO program management [is] not commensurate with increased resources and expanded responsibilities.” (p. 9).
- “NASA has placed overall Program responsibility in a single Program Executive at Headquarters who has no dedicated staff to assist with Program oversight.” (p. 10)
- In addition to managing NASA-funded NEO detection, tracking, characterization, and mitigation efforts, “the Program supports the work of NASA initiatives such as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and NEO Program personnel provide technical support for a Space Act agreement with the B612 Foundation to assist in the development of a privately funded, space-based infrared telescope. Despite this increased activity, NASA has not changed or improved the NEO Program’s management structure, and the Program has not established a plan to integrate the additional initiatives or track their contributions to attainment of NEO Program goals” (p. iii).
The NEO program’s budget has increased from $4 million in 2010 to $40 million this year. As the IG’s report notes, when the program budget was $20 million it was managed by one civil servant. Now that the program budget is $40 million, it is still managed by one civil servant (the same one). (See above.) I am a consultant to the NEO Observation Program on communication issues. I am not, and cannot be, involved in program management. I am not privy to any inside information on the status of the program. But it seems to me that the central message from the IG is not that the program “lacks structure” but that it lacks the resources needed to organize and operate as a well structured NASA program. That’s my biased five cents worth.