The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: JPL

WASHINGTON — The White House has directed NASA to study the possibility of converting one of more of its field centers into federal labs, revisiting a proposal made nearly 15 years ago.

The proposal is one of more than 30 included in a report by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released June 21 that offers a package of reforms and reorganizations of the federal government, ranging from merging the Departments of Education and Labor to consolidating management of graduate research fellowships.

The one proposal related to NASA calls for a study to examine the utility of converting some of the agency’s field centers into what are known as federally funded research and development centers, or FFRDCs. Such centers are owned and funded by the federal government but operated by contractors. The workforce of FFRDCs are typically employees of the contractor and not civil servants.

One of NASA’s 10 major field centers, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is an FFRDC, operated by the California Institute of Technology under a contract with NASA. The other field centers are government owned and operated.

In the report, OMB argued that converting NASA centers into FFRDCs could provide the agency with flexibility and efficiency improvements at a time when it has been tasked by the White House, through Space Policy Directive 1, to return humans to the Moon as a milestone towards eventual human missions to Mars.

“The new National Space Strategy and National Space Policy Directive 1 make examining the potential advantages of an FFRDC model at NASA particularly timely,” the report states. “FFRDCs may offer a powerful approach to enable NASA to better align its workforce skillsets with Agency priorities, while simultaneously engendering an entrepreneurial spirit that better allows NASA to infuse talent from industry and commercial partners.”

The report directs NASA to provide an analysis on the feasibility of converting field centers to FFRDCs by the end of August. NASA will also be asked to look at whether “it may be effective to perform new programs and projects using an FFRDC structure.” That analysis, including the agency’s recommendations, will be used by OMB in preparing future budgets and policies.

The idea of converting NASA field centers into FFRDCs is not new. The OMB report notes that a 2004 report by the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, established to identify ways to implement then-President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, also recommended converting centers into FFRDCs in the belief that they would be more innovative and work more effectively with the private sector.

“As currently organized, NASA’s Centers are not optimally configured to carry out the nation’s space exploration vision,” stated the final report by that committee, also known as the Aldridge Commission after its chairman, former Secretary of the Air Force Pete Aldridge. “The value of FFRDCs is rooted in their technical competence, flexibility, independence, and objectivity in support of a given federal agency’s technical projects.”

However, at the June 2004 press conference where the committee released the policy, Aldridge acknowledged there was a more practical reason for that recommendation. “Our view of it was, if we put into our report that the Congress and NASA should undertake a base realignment and closure action, the report would have probably been burned on the first day,” he said, citing long-standing opposition to any effort to close one or more field centers. “That was too hard to do.”

Neither Congress nor NASA took any major steps to implement that 2004 recommendation to turn NASA field centers into FFRDCs.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...