Bolden: Contractors Must Right-Size for NASA To Reach Its Goals

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WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says he has no plans to shrink the size of his agency’s civil work force, though he warned that the private sector must reduce excess capacity if it expects to support NASA’s space exploration goals.

“American industry at the very top-level management and boards have got to come together and decide whether or not it’s important for us to be first in everything or whether we’re going to relinquish our leadership,” Bolden said during a May 19 meeting of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee. “If everybody wants to maintain the status quo in terms of infrastructure — corporate infrastructure — tell me that right now and I’ll go back to Texas, because I can’t do anything.”

Bolden said he was appealing to industry to partner with NASA as the agency embarks on a controversial plan to scrap most of its Moon-bound Constellation program in favor of fostering private sector development of a commercial space transportation system to replace the retiring space shuttle.

Testifying before a Senate panel in April, Bolden offered an example of the corporate status quo his agency seeks to overhaul, saying the solid-rocket-motor industrial base that supplies boosters for the space shuttle has been overcapitalized for years. He was referring to ATK Aerospace Systems of Magna, Utah, which also is developing shuttle-derived boosters for the Constellation program’s Ares rockets, now slated for cancellation.

“It was far overcapitalized for shuttle because we said we were going to fly 100 missions a year, or 50 missions a year, and that’s what it was set up to service, [but] we ended up flying eight missions a year,” he told a Senate Appropriations panel April 22. “It was overcapitalized for shuttle, it would have been grossly overcapitalized for Constellation, and so the business decision … that needs to be made by the only company that’s legitimately in that industry right now is ‘How do I downsize?’ if they want to be competitive.”

ATK spokesman George Torres said May 21 that Bolden’s assertions are false. “There are a few misconceptions about ATK’s facilities and cost structure,” Torres said. “We never facilitized for more than 10 to 12 shuttle flights a year beginning in the early 1980s.”

Following the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, the company anticipated a slowdown in shuttle flight rates and reduced its work force by 50 percent while mothballing buildings to reduce infrastructure.

With shuttle retirement approaching later this year, “we’ve been ramping down and anticipating low production rates of Ares 1, so we reduced further, redesigned our factory operations, and we’ve reduced our work force by an additional 35 percent in the last 18 months,” he said.

Since NASA unveiled its new direction in February, the agency has come under fire from lawmakers in states most likely to lose contractor jobs as a result of the shuttle’s retirement and Constellation’s proposed cancellation. But during the FAA board meeting, Patti Grace Smith, an aerospace industry consultant and former FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said NASA’s new plan to help develop a market for commercial space firms could necessitate a reduction in force among the agency’s civil servants.

“As we talk about the new space economy, and that’s what this is about I think is doing this for the nation, we at some point have to get into discussions about what is the right work force,” Smith said. “And private industry generally does it with less people, many times, than the government does; you don’t see these same standing armies that you do in the government.”

Bolden said NASA would have a hard time reducing its government work force.

“If you want me to reduce the career professionals as opposed to the contractor work force, we can do that, but then what do I use for expertise in terms of engineering and program management input?” he said. “I don’t think the government, nor you the private citizen, wants us to outsource the professional work force of NASA. So yes, there may be reductions in our work force down the road, but that’s not something I’m looking at right now.”