NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., was riding high last summer following its latest dazzling success: the successful landing of the car-sized Curiosity Mars rover on the red planet.

But the next big thing for the laboratory, NASA’s traditional go-to center for the most challenging planetary missions that breach humanity’s frontiers, is essentially a repeat performance, now scheduled to launch in 2020. Budget pressures have forced NASA to shelve more-ambitious efforts to cache martian samples for eventual return to Earth and to orbit Europa, the jovian moon that has intrigued scientists and dreamers for decades.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, a continent away in Greenbelt, Md., appears to be encroaching on JPL’s traditional turf, having been selected to manage the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) orbiter and Osiris-Rex asteroid sample-return missions. 

Eugene Tattini, the retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who took JPL’s No. 2 job in 2002, laments the resources the laboratory, a federally funded research and development center operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, spent competing for Maven. He says the agency should rethink having its centers compete for work.

Tattini, whose Air Force assignments included running the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center, which buys satellites and rockets, also believes NASA needs to take a hard look at how it’s organized, from its field center structure to its mission directorates.

Tattini, who plans to retire before the year is out, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

Now that you’re retiring, you can start telling people what you really think of the space program. What do you really think of the space program?

Quite frankly, there’s been a lot of unintended consequences, in terms of these competitions. We started out with a number of competitive kinds of things: Explorer, Discovery, New Frontiers kinds of competitions. And this is one of the things that, in reflection, I would change if I was king for a day. We spend a lot of money on these competitions. Needlessly. Just for the sake of competition. And while on the one hand we strive to be collegial and cooperative with our fellow centers, quite frankly, they’re going to be a competitor of yours, not only for the project but also for the hearts and minds of potential principal investigators. And this, in my opinion, has to be relooked at. It’s not all that healthy today.

Can you give me an example?

Take the competition where the Maven mission was selected. Maven is an atmospheric mission that’s about to launch, and the folks out of the Goddard Space Center won that competition. And that’s fine. That’s all fair and good. But we spent an awful lot of money competing with them, and I’m sure they spent an awful lot of money competing with us, when all that needed to be done was for the scientific community to decide we were going to have an atmospheric sample mission and assign it to Goddard. Then we wouldn’t have had to spend all of that money. In other words, NASA should compete the science first. Then let the principal investigator find whichever center or contractor he or she wants to work with, and construct the project around it.

When you say “compete the science,” what do you mean? How would this be done?

Each principal investigator would submit a proposal for whatever particular scientific investigation they want to do, something that matches up with a decadal survey item. And they’d do it without regard to whether or not instrumentation has been built, without regard to whether the contractors or the center have been selected. Let the principal investigators then compete their particular scientific experiments with one another.

Are there any other changes you might make, if you were king for a day?

This is an observation that’s been made a thousand times, but one of the things we look at back and forth is how the agency is organized. And currently, the agency is organized around space science and human spaceflight and, to a much lesser degree, around aeronautics. I think it’s high time that we start to blend the robotic space science capabilities with the human capabilities in missions, like with the asteroid retrieval mission just announced. The agency should really relook at how it’s organized and how the money’s applied and allocated through the agency.

So what should be done about the 10 field centers, the mission directorates and all of that? How would you change NASA?

I went through four Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC) as a member of the Air Force, and toward the latter part of my career I was one of the planners that actually did BRAC for the Air Force Material Command and ended up closing a major Air Force depot. So you have to understand two things: One, to realign capability and to close installations is going to cost you money up front; secondly, you have to understand that you will save money over the mid- and longer term. And you will save a lot of money. What NASA should have done, since it has installations on large military complexes, is perhaps even join in with the Department of Defense as they went through a couple of rounds of their Base Realignment and Closure. But having said all of that, even if your agency’s got a lot of money, you should step back and relook at how you’re organized and how your capabilities are spread. And you should do that in a very objective kind of a way, and a very apolitical kind of a way.

If you were to suggest a BRAC-like realignment for NASA, what would be the first step?

Step one is to look at how to realign yourself to do whatever the longer-term vision of the agency is. If that is humans to beyond low Earth orbit, then you look at the functions that are required to do that. And, quite frankly, when you realign things, it’s not necessarily the numbers of wind tunnels, the numbers of labs or the numbers of specialized equipment. You could keep those kind of things in place. What you’re looking at is the whole infrastructure, including the center director, the deputy center director, the public affairs guys, the civilian pay guys, all of those kinds of things that you save through consolidation and realignment. That turns out to be a substantial amount of money.

How can you maintain hard assets if you shed a chunk of your center work force?

If you had a particular asset that was just cost prohibitive to move or relocate somewhere else, leave it in place and let it be managed by a small cadre of people who work for a geographically separated organization.

Come again?

A contractor. 

The biggest obstacle to a NASA BRAC has always been Congress, whose members fiercely defend their local centers. How would you address that?

One of the things you would have to do is bring the congressional delegations from all of the centers together in some kind of a caucus and also work with the delegations in those particular places. Very difficult to do, but we found it very helpful in the military. We had, for example, five large depots, four of which were the single largest employer in their state. We had to bring the congressional folks together and take them through some of the issues you have to solve.

What about procurement? Are there other cost-saving measures that have worked for the military that might work for NASA? 

I think it’s almost impossible to compare the Defense Department acquisition process to NASA’s in an apples-to-apples way. The closest comparison is probably the way both organizations buy expendable launch vehicles.  While each agency budgets for rockets differently, the actual competitive selection processes are very similar — so much so that consideration might be given to achieving economies of scale through joint buys of certain classes of expendable launch vehicles.

When are you officially retiring?

The retirement date is probably going to be later this year, pending the selection of a replacement deputy director. 

Have you got plans for life after NASA?

No. I just turned 70 years old, and I’ve been doing this for almost 48 years, so I’m going to sit back and relax a little bit. But I’ve already accepted a couple of pro bono things, including one with the state of California to help them with their military base reuse and retention. Other than that, I’ll just take it very slowly.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...