Major Tom’s Ground Control

It is called the art of business for a reason – many decisions / observations are in the realm of estimation rather than calculation; judgment rather than facts.

Never so more is this the case than estimating – then gainfully exploiting – the useful life of an asset.

What happens, though, when that asset is the International Space Station?

The International Space Station (ISS) is a space station – or more precisely a habitable artificial satellite – in low Earth orbit.  It was first launched in 1998 and is now the largest artificial body in orbit being often seen with the naked eye from Earth.

The Inspector General for NASA recently released a report titled “Extending the Operational Life of the International Space Station Until 2024” in which it considered whether all the relevant issues had been properly considered.

The report noted:

In November 2013, the International Space Station (ISS or Station) completed 15 years of continuous operation in low Earth orbit, marking a significant achievement in the history of human spaceflight. Two months later, the Administration announced its intent to extend Station operations until 2024. Originally designed and tested for a 15-year life span, the ISS may now operate for 26 years.

The report is an excellent summary of the issues that any organisation should consider when considering the ramifications of extending an asset past its original intended expiration date.

Firstly the Inspector General appears to call into question the robustness of NASA’s risk scenario planning:

NASA continues to assess the long-term viability of the ISS and to date has identified no major obstacles to extending operations to 2024. Nevertheless, the Agency must address several risks. First, the ISS faces a risk of insufficient power generation due in part to faster than expected degradation of its solar arrays. Second, although most replacement parts have proven more reliable than expected, sudden failures of key hardware have occurred requiring unplanned space walks to repair or replace hardware. Third, although NASA has a robust cargo transportation system, it has a limited capacity to transport large replacement parts – such as solar arrays and radiators – to the Station.

Secondly it finds that the forecasts upon which the decision to extend are friendly to the decision to extend:

NASA officials have indicated they intend to maintain the ISS annual budget between $3 billion and $4 billion per year through 2024. In our judgment, this estimate is based on overly optimistic assumptions and the cost to NASA will likely be higher. First, much of the projected cost increase is attributable to higher transportation costs, and we found NASA’s estimate for transportation costs unrealistic. Second, the Agency’s international partners have yet to commit to participating in Station operations beyond 2020. Should they decide not to participate NASA and any remaining partners will likely face higher costs.

As to how to use the asset moving forward is also a concern:

A significant amount of NASA research aboard the ISS involves mitigating risks associated with long-term human presence in space. However, the Agency will not be able to address all of these risks through ISS research even if Station operations continue through 2024. Accordingly, NASA needs to prioritize its research aboard Station to address the most important risks in the time available.

This report should not only interest those who eyes have turned to the stars but all those that are keen to read a rigorous and well written examination of what issues need to be considered when you seek to nearly double the useful life of an asset being used in an environment for which there is no precedent.

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