For over two decades, NASA has been unable to overcome the internal management perplexity that obstructs the development of the nation’s civil space endeavors. NASA now faces massive layoffs, dependence on the Russian government for crew access to the space station, a human lunar program in disarray, and the consistent inability to control its development and operations costs. This divisive environment will continue until internal and external project oversight functions are strengthened and a doctrine of accountability is established for NASA’s senior management.
Attempts to establish an impartial, internal evaluation group directed by NASA headquarters have been futile. The major obstacle is the political independence of the various NASA centers, commonly referred to as the “NASA fiefdoms.” This “protect our home turf” policy has prevented the establishment of NASA headquarters-directed oversight groups.
The NASA advisory panels are ineffective because members serve at the pleasure of the NASA administrator and have been removed for expressing conclusions that disagree with the administrator’s agenda. The panel members in too many cases lack technical expertise or the resources to conduct independent investigations. These oversight panels, as currently structured, contribute to NASA’s management dilemma.
The NASA inspector general’s office does not have adequate staff with technical expertise for evaluating projects. In some cases, the entrenched civil service staff has an agenda that opposes that of the presidentially appointed inspector general. Too often, appointees serve at the pleasure of their staff and not the president. The NASA inspector general must have an independent, unbiased technical evaluation source.
There must be oversight and accountability at NASA. The agency will continue to fail until a presidential directive of due diligence is issued that establishes unbiased evaluations of NASA’s projects and enforces accountability for management failure. Regrettably, repeated requests to President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy for directive action remain unanswered. The Obama open-door policy remains shut.
Don A. Nelson
Nelson Aerospace Consulting
The writer is a retired NASA aerospace engineer.