Editorial | Give Cost-cutting a Chance

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Excess infrastructure and duplicative activities are an unnecessary budgetary drain that NASA can ill afford these days.

It’s a longstanding problem that has proved to be very stubborn. Civil service rolls are notoriously difficult to trim and NASA often encounters stiff congressional resistance when it tries to shutter outdated facilities or consolidate functions at a single center. Actually closing a center is a political nonstarter.

NASA has had some success finding users for facilities it no longer needs. Examples include the lease of former space shuttle processing facilities at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Boeing for its CST-100 commercial crew capsule and for the U.S. Air Force’s Boeing-built X-37B spaceplane; and the more recent lease of a large aircraft hangar at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, to a company owned by technology giant Google.

In another encouraging development, a nearly 2-year-old initiative to reduce or eliminate duplication among NASA’s 10 field centers appears to be kicking into high gear with the pending appointment of leaders to the agency’s Technical Capabilities Assessment Team, or TCAT.

These leaders will be tasked with finding efficiencies within several core agency capabilities at the field centers. Four such capabilities — Earth science, life science, aircraft operations and human factors — have been identified, with many more to follow.

According to Lesa Roe, NASA’s deputy assistant administrator, the four capabilities identified to date account for roughly $2.8 billion of the agency’s nearly $18 billion annual budget, and employ some 10,000 civil servants and contractors. Overall, NASA employs 17,000 civil servants and 40,000 contractors.

Addressing the NASA Advisory Council in November, Ms. Roe said the agency is targeting $550 million in annual savings across those four disciplines. She also noted that NASA has 98 mission operations centers and expressed hope that the associated costs can be cut by some 30 percent.

Another activity likely to draw scrutiny is the process by which the centers often compete with one another to lead agency missions under programs like the Discovery series of planetary probes. “We are spending … quite a bit of money annually, competing for our own money, as an agency,” Ms. Roe said. “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.”

That’s a healthy sentiment, although NASA must tread carefully. While Discovery and similar competitions incentivize centers to accumulate and retain duplicative capabilities, they also help ensure that selection officials receive the strongest set of proposals to choose from. NASA must look for ways to reduce duplication while preserving, to the extent possible, the competitive edge of its centers, which admittedly won’t be easy.

Another big question is how NASA’s cost-cutting initiative will be received on Capitol Hill. Ms. Roe indicated that lawmakers have been receptive so far, but that could change once concrete proposals to reduce personal or transfer functions from a given center are laid on the table.

Congress has contributed substantially to NASA’s budget woes by funding pet projects and blocking center consolidation efforts. Lawmakers owe it to the U.S. space program and taxpaying public to give fair and objective consideration to the forthcoming proposals from the TCAT process.