STS-126 Crew is Busy at Work at the International Space Station

STS-126 marks the fourth and final shuttle mission of 2008 and is a very important one to the future of human spaceflight. Space shuttle Endeavour and its crew have delivered equipment to the International Space Station that will enable it to house six – instead of three – crew members for long-duration missions. Expanding the crew size is a key step to utilizing the space station to its full capability.

On the night of November 14, when the shuttle lifted off and lit up the sky in Florida, it carried 32,000 pounds of cargo, including two additional sleeping quarters, a second toilet system, and equipment to recycle urine into potable water. This water regeneration system will help to ensure the space station’s self-sufficiency, which is necessary before the space shuttle retires.

The STS-126 mission has been described as an “extreme home makeover,” but it’s really a home improvement that requires incredible coordination between the space station and space shuttle crews and ground teams. The servicing of the space station’s two Solar Alpha Rotary Joints (SARJ) is the focus of the flight’s four spacewalks. These wagon-wheel-shaped joints allow the space station’s solar arrays to rotate so that they’re always getting as much sun as possible. The SARJ on the space station’s starboard – or right – side has had very limited use for the past year. By lubricating both SARJs, we hope to extend the lives of the joints to ensure that the space station can generate the power for the larger station crews.

Due to their demanding work, the shuttle and station crews may not have time to celebrate an incredible milestone on November 20. But we here on the ground should do so. Ten years ago, the first element of the station, the Zarya module, was launched into space, kicking off the most complex engineering project ever.

The space station is now the size of a five-bedroom home and is a testament to the unique partnership among NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

There are thousands of people across this country and around the world who have worked to make this current mission not only possible, but also to make it the success it is turning out to be.

Progress in Financial Management

With the FY 2008 fiscal year behind us, and the independent financial audit process nearing conclusion, I wanted to share with you the significant progress the Agency has made in the last year on our financial management. While recognizing the advances NASA has made recently in financial reporting, we know there is still much work to be done before the Agency can again achieve a “clean” audit opinion and resolve its long-standing material weaknesses in financial reporting. Ron Spoehel, our Chief Financial Officer, joined the Agency in September 2007. Through his leadership, and that of his Deputy Terry Bowie, there has been material progress in the financial reporting processes by which the Agency maintains and closes its books, as well as in the effective use of financial reports to drive improved operational execution performance.

This past year, Ron led the Agency to take a new approach toward resolving financial reporting, internal control, and audit weaknesses. To begin, the Agency developed and introduced a Comprehensive Compliance Strategy (CCS) establishing requirements for all of NASA to be in compliance with the federal standards for generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and other applicable financial standards, to demonstrate such compliance through auditable evidence, and to operate with robust and comprehensive internal controls over financial reporting. To measure and monitor the effectiveness of the CCS operation, a Continuous Monitoring Program (CMP) was introduced across the Agency. In brief, the CMP requires each of our Centers, as financial reporting organizations, to perform and certify to a full suite of 84 control activities each month and 119 each quarter and to report the results of those reviews and any corrective actions to Headquarters. Headquarters then reviews the data, oversees any remedial actions required and looks for any systemic issues that may need to be addressed at the Agency level. The result is that we are already identifying, raising and resolving financial data issues faster and more consistently than ever before. This means that the financial information we now use is more accurate and reliable. Overall, these initiatives have allowed the Agency to maintain its “green” rating on progress for the Financial Management Improvement component of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) Scorecard and, in particular, the CMP also has helped the Agency achieve “green” on eight of nine key federally monitored financial metrics.

Coupled with the improvements in the Agency’s financial reporting processes as noted above, NASA also has made enhancements this past year in the presentation and use of financial analytics and reporting, which are giving us better information to make decisions, and the results can be seen in our improved obligation rates and financial performance measures. As one example, the Agency was able to more effectively put its available appropriations budget to work this year through the concerted efforts of many operations around the Agency. This focus on budget execution drove a $2.4 billion increase in obligations performance for FY 2008, to $18.7 billion total, producing year-end results not achieved since before FY 2000. We also are putting all this enhanced financial analytical capability to good use providing Agency leadership with more focused and actionable reports as another component of program reviews.

While building on the stronger foundation we have now put in place, we intend to continually improve the Agency’s financial management processes and financial reporting capabilities. Look for even more enhancements in the near future.

Presidential Transition

Since mid-summer NASA has been preparing for the Presidential transition that is now upon us. The Office of Management and Budget has led the efforts across the government and has been very forward leaning with both campaign teams to be ready to initiate a smooth transition, particularly with the challenges that we face as a nation today.

While NASA usually does not factor as a near-term decision for incoming Administrations, this year the General Accounting Office (GAO) highlighted Shuttle retirement as one of its top 13 urgent issues across the government.

Based on experience from past transition teams, NASA has been developing a large set of reference material for the new team to review. Phil McAlister from the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation is NASA’s lead point of contact for the transition activities. As such, he has been representing NASA for several weeks of transition planning meetings across the government. The NASA transition book and a companion issues book have been reviewed by all of the Strategic Management Council members and are now in final preparation for the President-Elect Barack Obama’s Transition Team.

In addition, the General Services Administration (GSA) has asked each agency to provide floor space and basic services for the transition teams to operate within the agencies. All that has been done; the books are being printed and we are ready to begin the discussions.  Remember though that the President-Elect Obama’s Transition Team is an advisory body to the new President. In some cases we may be limited in the data that can be provided since they are unlikely to be government employees. We have also been cautioned by the White House to only deal with those people who have been officially designated as Transition Team members. During this time many folks working unique agendas may present themselves as “working transition.” We must be sure that any agency information that is given to transition personnel is given only to those on the official team.  If you receive any requests, please refer these requests to Phil or his backup, Mike Hawes.