Aging NASA Labs Need $2 Billion Makeover

NASA's aging research laboratories have fallen into disrepair after decades of neglect and are in dire need of a $2.4 billion makeover if the U.S. space agency hopes to achieve its future goals for science and exploration, according to a new report.

In 2009, NASA's deferred maintenance budget for its research facilities actually reached a whopping $2.46 billion, according to the report released this week by the National Academy of Sciences.? That's up from a $1.77 billion deficit in 2004, the report said.

Some labs are now inferior to similar university-level facilities. Many researchers spend much of their time trying to find funds to keep equipment working, rather than doing actual science, warned the 100-page report titled "Capabilities for the Future: An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research."

"Without adequate resources, laboratories can deteriorate very quickly and will not be easily reconstituted," said Joseph Reagan, co-chair of the report committee and retired corporate vice president of Lockheed Martin.

This seems part of a bigger problem where funding of basic research at NASA has fallen off dramatically over the past 5 years or more, the report found.? The space agency could lose its leadership in aeronautics technology even within the U.S., let alone around the world, it added.

That could also threaten long-term goals to build new technologies for space exploration, the report stated.

NASA's labs need upgrades

The report examined labs at Goddard Space Flight Center, Glenn Research Center, Langley Research Center, Ames Research Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Funding for the review came in part from NASA.

"NASA greatly appreciates and values the expert insights, findings and recommendations of the NRC team," said Richard Keegan, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Mission Support Directorate. "Several issues raised represent areas of longstanding agency concern."

For instance, over 80 percent of the research labs at those NASA facilities are more than 40 years old and require more maintenance than the available funding permits. The notable exception was a new science building at Goddard. 

"On average, the committee classifies the facilities and equipment observed in the NASA laboratories as marginally adequate, with some clearly being totally inadequate and others being very adequate," the report stated.

How NASA stacks up

The report deemed NASA's labs inferior to comparable labs at the U.S. Department of Energy, top U.S. universities and corporations, and just on par with basic research labs at the U.S. Department of Defense.

NASA's current funds do not allow for modernizing lab equipment that's not required for specific missions, Keegan told SPACE.com. But he and other administrators plan to balance "numerous competing mission and mission support priorities within our allocated budget" and find possible solutions.

Another report finding called for NASA to find a better balance in funding between short-term missions and longer-term research and development. The U.S. space agency hopes to address that issue with a renewed focus on innovation and technology, according to Keegan.

That focus is embodied in the newly established Office of the Chief Technologist, led by Robert Braun, and a major initiative in the 2011 budget. Braun, NASA's new tech guru, was an aerospace engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and previously mentioned plans to pull in private innovation and commercial partners, which could help make up for the shortfalls in NASA's own research facilities for the short term.

Still, the clock is ticking if NASA hopes to get on the right footing for its recent shift toward ambitious missions aimed at the asteroids, Mars and beyond.

 "NASA should find a solution to its deferred maintenance issues before catastrophic failures occur that will seriously impact missions and research operations," the report suggested.