NASA audit calls 5 Ohio sites underused

Sites include Plum Brook and Glenn center


CLEVELAND — A NASA inspector general’s audit says five NASA research facilities in Ohio are underused and potentially expendable. The audit has caused concern among northern Ohio officials about the future of the national space agency’s Ohio research center and its annex.

The testing sites that helped establish the NASA Glenn Research Center’s reputation as an aerospace innovator are among at least 33 NASA technical sites nationwide that the report labeled as outdated, redundant, or lacking a clear future purpose, the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported.

The inspector general has said that getting rid of costly, underused sites is a way to cut expenses from the nation’s space program, which is facing serious budget problems.

But the loss some of its technical facilities could weaken the case for continuing operation of the NASA Glenn center, which employs more than 3,300 government workers and contractors, the newspaper reported.

The testing sites at the Glenn center and its Plum Brook annex in Sandusky include the largest of the center’s six wind tunnels, two vacuum chambers, and two rocket-firing stands that played major roles in high-profile missions.

The audit of the five facilities and a recent disclosure that some NASA officials supported permanently closing Glenn and Plum Brook in 2005 have contributed to growing concerns about Glenn’s future.

Kurt Landefeld, a member of the Friends of Plum Brook Station, a group of business and political leaders that promotes the Sandusky testing facility and its Glenn center parent, said the inspector general’s report could be used as a lever by anyone who might want to scale down the agency.

“I think we’re going to be called upon to fight like mad to defend this center and to keep it at the status it deserves,” Mr. Landefeld said.

The audit is another reminder that the community must work together to support NASA Glenn, which is “one of Ohio’s most important economic engines,” said Joe Ronan, president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership that promotes economic development in northeast Ohio.

Glenn director James Free said the center has gained additional responsibilities since 2005, including developing and testing parts of NASA’s new crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket, and he doesn’t think people should be concerned.

“We just keep delivering good results,” Mr. Free said.

But the space agency is in the midst of reassessing its testing facility needs and the responsibilities of its individual centers, according to NASA officials.

NASA spokesman Sonja Alexander told the newspaper there are “no current center closing plans under discussion,” but she said assets with no long-range mission requirements would be potential candidates for decommissioning.

NASA’s testing-facilities review and a plan to inform the public “about the difficult decisions ahead” will be ready by September, 2014, NASA spokesman Allard Buetel said.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) said the testing facilities at NASA Glenn and Plum Brook aren’t expendable, but he added that he remains concerned “about NASA’s pattern of reckless spending during a time of record debt and deficits.”

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) also opposes closing testing facilities at Glenn and Plum Brook. Mr. Brown said he is fighting for funding increases for NASA “so its infrastructure will match the programs and aspirations of our nation’s missions in space and aerospace.”

NASA’s deputy inspector general, Gail Robinson, said the inspector general’s office did not recommend any particular facility be closed, but if the agency continues to get less funding, “at some point you have to figure out ways to deal with the fact that you have less money.”