Earth and Life Sciences, Aircraft Ops Under Microscope in NASA Consolidation Effort

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s latest attempt to right-size its 10 U.S. field centers will begin with a focus on a roughly $3 billion cross-section of the agency’s nearly $18 billion budget that could affect some 10,000 civil servants and contractors, a senior agency official said here Nov. 20.

Including administrative, clerical and support personnel, NASA employs some 17,000 civil servants — who by law may not be laid off — and between 34,000 and 40,000 contractors who work on or near the agency’s field centers, Lesa Roe, NASA’s deputy assistant administrator, told the NASA Advisory Council’s (NAC) institutional committee during a meeting at NASA headquarters here. The latest meeting was only the second for the new NAC committee.

Roe, former director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, is co-leading NASA’s Technical Capabilities Assessment Team (TCAT) along with her boss, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. TCAT began in 2012 but will not be in full force until after February, when NASA plans to appoint so-called capabilities leaders to monitor its 10 field centers and point out areas where two or more centers are spending money on the same things.

Each leader will be in charge of one broad area of expertise NASA is calling a technical capability. There will eventually be 19 such agency-wide capabilities, Roe told the NAC here, but NASA has so far identified only four: aircraft operations, Earth science research, life sciences research, and human factors — a discipline focused on making crewed systems such as spacecraft more user-friendly.

These four capabilities alone account for about $2.8 billion of the roughly $18 billion NASA spends a year and employ about 10,000 people, including contractors and civil servants, Roe told the NAC. There could be as much as $550 million in annual savings to be had in these four areas, Roe told the NAC, although she acknowledged the number is “a target” NASA might not be able to hit.

Another target for savings under TCAT, Roe said, is mission operations. There are a total of 98 mission operations centers across NASA and the agency believes it can reduce costs in this area by about 30 percent, said Roe. The week of Nov. 10, NASA formed a team led by John McCullough, former chief flight director at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, to evaluate whether that target is realistic, Roe told the NAC.

In human spaceflight, Johnson has a practical monopoly on mission operations, with the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, maintaining a backup mission control for NASA’s international space station activities. But the dozens of planetary probes, Earth observation satellites and space telescopes NASA operates commonly are flown from dedicated mission operations centers comprising no more than a few desktop computers.

Meanwhile, TCAT will also attempt to reduce the intra-agency infighting that sometimes occurs when centers vie for funds under competitive mission lines such as the Planetary Science Division’s Discovery and New Frontiers programs, and the Astrophysics Division’s Explorer program.

“We are spending … quite a bit of money annually, competing for our own money, as an agency,” Roe told the NAC. “We compete centers against each other, and centers then hold on to capabilities we don’t really need them holding on to just so they can compete. And that model has to be addressed.”

One way centers hold on to capabilities outside of their core areas of expertise, Roe said, is through contractors. Certain capabilities, Roe said, should be consolidated at one center, with other centers using them as needed. An example of the model NASA would prefer, Roe said, is the agency-wide use of the Deep Space Network the Jet Propulsion Laboratory maintains to communicate with spacecraft beyond Earth orbit.

“No one will create new [Deep Space Network], they use the [Deep Space Network] we have,” Roe said. “We need to do something like that for other assets.”

TCAT is only the latest NASA attempt to reorganize its organizational footprint. Previous efforts have met with resistance in Congress, where lawmakers are always eager to protect NASA centers where their constituents work.

Roe acknowledged that telling the NAC that any TCAT recommendations, however sensible, will ultimately fail “if I don’t align the budget in some way.”

TCAT is not a secret on Capital Hill, and lawmakers so far briefed on the initiative are “very receptive to this,” Roe said Nov. 20. “They think this is the right thing to do.”