NASA deputy administrator nominee seeks focus on managerial and acquisition issues

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WASHINGTON — The space industry outsider nominated to become NASA deputy administrator said he would focus on acquisition reform and adapting NASA to a “new role” with commercial partners if confirmed by the Senate.

The Senate Commerce Committee announced Aug. 16 that it will take up the nomination of James Morhard to be the second-in-command of NASA during an Aug. 23 hearing. It also released a questionnaire completed by Morhard providing his biographical background and explanations about his qualifications for and interest in the position.

Morhard, a former staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee who is currently Deputy Sergeant at Arms for the Senate, emphasized his management experience in those positions, rather than any experience with the space industry, when answering questions about his qualifications for being deputy administrator, noting that position is responsible for management of NASA operations and programs.

“Our nation has long held that NASA embodies the qualities of a visionary agency whose successes are driven through integrity, hard work, country above self, sacrifice, perseverance, resilience, and team work,” he wrote. “My life’s successes have resulted from having these practical traits, having a vision, and engagement of a committed team.”

In his current position, Morhard has been responsible for the day-to-day management of Senate operations. “The creation and execution of a strong financial management system has allowed for timely decision-making and more effective operations that keep the Senate functioning at acceptable risk levels in all conceivable circumstances,” he wrote.

His time on the Senate Appropriations committee, including as staff director and, previously, clerk for what is now the commerce, justice, and science subcommittee, involved close collaboration with both houses of Congress as well as the White House. “These efforts required a complete command of the federal budget and legislative processes,” he wrote.

Asked about the agency’s top three challenges, he first emphasized the need for a “clear, compelling, and executable direction” for the agency’s human spaceflight program. “Without clarity and continuity in this core NASA competency, all others [sic] activities will suffer and languish,” he wrote. He didn’t explicitly state if he thought the agency’s current plans, outlined under Space Policy Directive (SPD) 1 signed by President Trump last December, met those criteria.

He also called for a “new role in relation to emerging commercial and non-governmental space activities” at NASA. “In the future, NASA must learn to strategically partner with private sector entities to provide guidance, leadership, strategic investments and technical expertise in support of national goals.” That aligns with SPD-1, which calls for NASA to lead “an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners.”

His third priority involved acquisition reform. “NASA must recognize that our national space acquisition process is outdated and inefficient. Many of these programs cost too much, take too long and underperform,” he wrote.

“If confirmed, we will work to address the national space acquisition process, to radically reduce cost, improve schedules and safety, exceed perform expectations and bring NASA’s culture back to the ‘cutting edge,’” he added. He didn’t go into specifics, but said that those reforms would adhere to Federal Acquisition Regulations.

The questionnaire’s statements represent the first public comments by Morhard since the White House announced its intent to nominate him July 12, formally submitting the nomination five days later. Most of the space community has been slow to react to the nomination, unlike that of the better-known — and, at the time, polarizing — Jim Bridenstine for NASA administrator last September.

His background, described in his questionnaire, made clear he has had little direct interaction with NASA during his professional career. When he was clerk of the commerce, justice, state, judiciary and related agencies subcommittee, its jurisdiction did not include NASA, unlike the current commerce, justice and science subcommittee. He did note that it included the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates polar and geostationary orbiting weather satellites.

In some cases, he appeared to stretch the relevance of his experience. Noting his time as clerk of the military construction appropriations subcommittee, he wrote, “Facilities management, planning and design, environmental compliance, and condemnation of real property as authorized by law are all challenges that NASA may also be required to address.”

Asked why he wants to be deputy administrator, he cited a desire to take on new challenges, such as bringing in commercial and international partners to carry out the agency’s exploration plans. “We must continue to be the protector of the ‘priority domain’ of space while leading the way for new and free space lanes of commerce,” he wrote. “These challenges are why I wish to serve in this position.”

The Aug. 23 confirmation hearing will also include Kelvin Droegemeier, nominated by the White House Aug. 1 to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). That position has, in past administrations, helped coordinate civil space policy, a role now largely handled by the National Space Council.

Droegemeier, a meteorology professor and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, said nothing directly about space policy in his 108-page questionnaire, which included a lengthy list of scientific publications and his curriculum vitae. Asked to identify the key challenges as head of OSTP, he mentioned the importance of the U.S. remaining a global leader in science, keeping the “research and education enterprise” in science and technology robust and efficient, and developing a “comprehensive approach” for improving education and the workforce.

“Directing OSTP would be an extraordinary privilege and an opportunity for me to give back to a Nation which has given me so much,” he wrote.