Fighting Corruption Isn’t Rocket Science

Space, the final frontier, sure is expensive to explore. Every launch, every mission, can cost billions of dollars in research, materials, and overhead. And partly because of this, government space agencies may be especially susceptible to corruption. After all, these agencies are responsible for enormous projects with thousands of moving parts (literally and figuratively), but are monitored principally by committees that lack the scientific knowhow to conduct effective oversight. Embezzlement, overspending, bribery, and other crimes are easy to miss. Not only is corruption easily buried by bureaucratic or technical minutiae, it’s also extremely costly, as mistakes can result in the loss of valuable equipment or even human life. Even when corruption causes things to go wrong, the fact that space missions are inherently risky and complex may make it difficult to recognize when a malfunction is due to malfeasance.

Roscosmos, the Russian state corporation responsible for space flights, serves as a cautionary tale. For years, Roscosmos funds have been embezzled though contracting bids— officials were bribed to make fake deals and artificially inflate costs, allowing hundreds of millions of dollars to evaporate and a few Soyuz rockets to accidentally explode. (In 2014 alone, corruption and other malfeasance caused Roscosmos to lose roughly US$1.8 billion.) After Russian anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny called out the “astronomic” levels of corruption and mismanagement at the Vostochny space center (one of President Putin’s pet projects), multiple criminal investigations resulted in the conviction and sentencing of fifty-eight officials for fraud and abuse of office.

Though the record of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is not nearly as egregious, neither is it pristine. Suspicions regarding bribes by private contractors to NASA officials have existed for decades. For instance, back in the mid-1990s, a controversial FBI sting operation implicated dozens of contractors that allegedly paid bribes to NASA employees in hopes of determining which commercial experiments would be selected for the International Space Station. Representative John Conyers, who chaired the Committee on Government Operations in the House of Representatives at the time, pinned the blame on “NASA’s dismal record of contract mismanagement and faulty financial controls.” And the problems haven’t gone away: just last year, NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight Doug Loverro resigned amid allegations for improper contacts with Boeing regarding the contracts for NASA’s moon lander program. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has raised numerous concerns about NASA’s procurement system, and NASA attributed the Taurus XL launch failures, worth $700 million, to faulty materials provided by a contractor that falsified thousands of certifications for their aluminum products.

Though NASA has since taken some measures to curb against the potential for this sort of corruption (such as the installation of a Chief Financial Officer and the Acquisition Integrity Program), the risks are still significant, especially as NASA ponders a return to crewed missions by way of billion dollar contracts. These risks are further exacerbated by the agency’s even greater reliance on private sector contractors to compensate for the decline in the agency’s budget. There are therefore several additional steps that NASA can and should take to further safeguard integrity in the procurement process.

  • First, NASA should require greater transparency in awarding contracts. Though concerns about procurement transparency are not unique to NASA, NASA’s contracting decisions are classified as “high-risk” acquisitions, likely due to the size and technical complexity of these projects. Yet although NASA does release reports detailing the rationale for the selection of each bidder, NASA’s selection process is functionally invite-only. Further, NASA has not consistently enforced “blackout” periods (where only public communications regarding a tender are allowed, in order to ensure that one company does not gain an unfair advantage); non-enforcement has allowed certain companies to benefit from behind-closed-doors discussions with the agency. In addition to concerns about undisclosed private contacts between companies and NASA officials, concerns have also been raised about conflicts of interest when contractors hire former NASA employees. In general, NASA needs to do a better job of strengthening its contracting transparency rules, and consistently enforcing those rules.
  • Second, in addition to improving its rules, NASA needs to strengthen the entities charged with ensuring integrity. NASA’s OIG is the unit tasked with vetting contractors and monitoring projects, and although this office has done important work (uncovering dubious allowances from small business contracts worth less than $30,000, and $74 million in questionable costs from SpaceX and Boeing contracts), the OIG has been stunningly unproductive in comparison to peer agencies. Inspector General’s offices at other U.S federal agencies have an average “return” of $9.59 per dollar spent. (That is, for every dollar spent on the Inspector General’s office, the office recovers an average of $9.49.) The NASA OIG’s return, by contrast, is only about 35 cents per dollar spent. Furthermore, routine audits of NASA projects have produced a staggering number of recommendations for improving oversight, but while many of these recommendations, seem like common sense—things like developing standards for contractors, improving audit systems, tracking suspicious overpayments, and implementing procedures for when improper payments are found—the relevant NASA bureaus and departments have not acted on them. When it comes to improving oversight, it’s one small step for NASA to push for the implementation of these outstanding obligations, and one giant leap to make the OIG (and other units with oversight responsibilities, such as the Chief Financial and Information Offices) more vigilant and forceful.

If NASA, and space agencies in other countries, are to succeed in their ambitious missions through public-private partnerships, these agencies must ensure that safeguards against corruption and other forms of malfeasance are strengthened. In order to prevent corruption, these agencies must take care to run an especially tight (space)ship.

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