Hold the Moon – NASA's buildings are crumbling amid 200-year upgrade cycles
If a facility falls down, 'the microscope inside it is useless to you'
While NASA prepares to journey through the unforgiving vacuum of space to the Moon and Mars, it faces a terrestrial threat in the meantime. A vacuum of funding that has left its own buildings crumbling around it.
Decades of under-investment are causing serious issues, said NASA Facilities and Real Estate Division Director Eric Weiser - the guy in charge of all of the US space agency's aging buildings. According to Weiser, the majority of NASA's 5,300 facilities are beyond their designed lifespan and while maintenance costs are climbing, budgets aren't.
"On average we have a $250 to $260 million dollar annual maintenance gap," Weiser said Thursday, explaining that being continually underfunded makes it hard to maintain any facilities effectively.
"Unplanned failures can have mission impacts, and the last thing we want to do is affect Artemis or some other significant mission."
Artemis being NASA's mega-program to put its people back on the Moon's surface.
Weiser's warning came during a meeting of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine's committee on NASA Mission Critical Workforce, Infrastructure and Technology, which is studying whether the agency has the resources to accomplish its strategic goals.
From the sound of things on the facilities front, NASA needs more cash – and if it had it, it would put it to work maintaining its labs and sites, the estates director said.
Money? Look elsewhere, says Congress
Weiser told the committee NASA has historically had to make do with shortfalls in funding, which has led to today's situation. That spending gap isn't going anywhere as far as Congress is concerned - the most recent science budget bill for 2024 cuts funding for NASA despite the agency asking for more.
All the while, NASA is allocating just 1.7 percent of its budget to construction, Weiser said, when industry standards put the average share going to construction at around three percent of top-line budgets.
"What that means is, on average, we're renewing our infrastructure around every 200 years," Weiser said. "A better number would be 60 to 80 years, and to do that we simply need more funding."
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With a smaller-than-desired budget, NASA has put off 78 projects in the past four years, leading to dilapidation of buildings because "deferred repairs … become unplanned failures," as Weiser put it.
An examination of NASA's facilities reveals a general "marginal to poor" state of maintenance in its facilities, but not necessarily the equipment inside them, Weiser said. The science inside the buildings get plenty of funding, he noted, "but if the building goes down, the microscope inside it is useless to you."
NASA: Death by entropy?
To save money, Weiser said NASA has taken a number of steps, including a tiered approach to prioritizing and scheduling maintenance, identifying properties to sell off, and raising funds by leasing off intact facilities that aren't mission critical.
Weiser said in the course of 40 workshops examining every single NASA facility in the past year, his team has found more than 750 assets that could be divested, saving $20 million on maintenance that can then be redirected to other facilities - a net gain of $40 million, as Weiser described it.
He also said NASA believes it can raise $37 million annually by 2026 by getting rid of old buildings. That's great - but it won't make up for that $250 million - and growing - maintenance gap.
"Unfortunately with our budget profile there are times when things will fail, they will fail unplanned, and we will have to shut facilities down to perform maintenance," Weiser told the committee. "The trend isn't good - we can shrink the gap, but not close it."
"If you plot this out, NASA goes out of business," observed committee member and retired NASA leader Mark Saunders. Weiser answered by saying such projections are part of the discussion among NASA leadership.
"We're at a point where we can't do what we've been doing for the last decade, plus," Weiser said. "We have to right-size our infrastructure, stop funding buildings we don't need anymore, and we're going to have to press even farther."
The NASA facilities director did have one bright spot to mention in his talk. It's hoped predictive analytics and machine learning might save the day.
"I'm going hard on technology," Weiser said, "it costs a lot less to repair a failure if you find it before it occurs." Condition-based maintenance, online mentoring platforms, and regular inspections are all being implemented, Weiser added.
Untried, we assume, is some good old-fashioned NASA tin-foil-and-chewing-gum style jerry rigging, which may not work well on load-bearing structures. ®