WASHINGTON — In February, NASA will appoint at least five “capability leaders” to help steer the agency’s latest bid to trim costs and reduce duplication of effort across its 10 regional field centers, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a Nov. 3 interview.

It will be a big step for the Technical Capabilities Assessment Team (TCAT) that since April 2012 has been studying ways to make NASA more efficient at a time when its budget is trending flat, major programs such as the James Webb Space Telescope and Space Launch System are hitting peak spending years, and the agency has been barred by Congress from laying off civil servants.

Lightfoot said the team’s ongoing review is about finding efficiencies, not consolidation. However, he acknowledged some NASA infrastructure “could be closed or moved” as a result of the effort.

As examples, Lightfoot cited the demolition of wind tunnels at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, earlier this decade and an April decision to cease NASA-operated parabolic jet flights for microgravity research and astronaut training and instead rely on contractor Zero Gravity Corp. of Arlington, Virginia, for that service.

“I know that I won’t be able to keep everything,” said Lightfoot, who as NASA’s most senior career civil servant currently ranks behind only the NASA administrator — who is a political appointee — in the agency’s chain of command.

To decide which moves to make next, NASA is developing a list of core capabilities that must be maintained to carry out the space and aeronautics missions the agency is chartered to undertake, Lightfoot said. The list has not been finalized yet, but there will be at least five core capabilities identified in February, each of which will be overseen by a capability leader.

“Once we get the capability leaders in place by the end of February, then we’ll have somebody to come forward and say, ‘You know what, we got too much of X and not enough of Y,’ ” Lightfoot told SpaceNews.

Lightfoot expects these capability leaders will be selected from within NASA, although the hiring process is open to all. Some leaders have been hired already, Lightfoot said, although he declined to identify them.

Capability leaders will have neither budget authority nor the ability to hire or fire anyone. Instead, they will report annually to the NASA Program Management Council, which Lightfoot chairs here. Major NASA programs must pass muster with the Program Management Council before they are allowed to proceed into development. The council also periodically reviews ongoing programs and makes budget recommendations to the NASA administrator each year.

Already, NASA has identified three core capability areas, Lightfoot said: life sciences, Earth science research and aircraft operations.

Other areas likely to be subjected at some point to TCAT’s scrutiny include:

  • Mission operations, including crewed and uncrewed missions.
  • Nuclear systems.
  • Propulsion.
  • Aeronautics sciences.
  • Robotic systems.
  • Microgravity flight services.
  • Launch vehicles.
  • Entry, descent and landing.

Lightfoot said TCAT is not meant to be NASA’s version of the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission that Congress last chartered in 2005, setting in motion plans to close more than 20 military bases across the United States.

“I think it’s an unreasonable comparison only because what we’re trying to do is actually size the centers appropriately,” Lightfoot said. “That could make [the center] smaller, that could make it bigger. We’re finding areas that we need to invest in that we’re not investing in, just like we’re finding areas where we may have duplication and overlap.”

When TCAT is finished — Lightfoot said it will continue beyond the February appointment of the first capability leaders — the study will serve as the agency’s answer to a slew of recommendations on excess infrastructure and duplication of effort that has been building up at the NASA Office of the Inspector General for years.

In a Nov. 14 report titled “NASA’s Top Management and Performance Challenges,” the NASA inspector general noted that “responsive action” to its many recommendations over the years “is contingent upon completion of the work of NASA’s Technical Capabilities Assessment Team.”

Whether NASA ultimately will be able to implement cost savings identified by TCAT may depend on political factors beyond the agency’s control. That is because lawmakers can be counted on to fight changes that threaten the budgets of NASA centers in their jurisdictions — a political reality that appears to have not escaped the inspector general’s attention. “It is too early in the [TCAT] process for the [Office of Inspector General] to assess its efficacy,” NASA Inspector General Paul Martin wrote.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.