Profile: Rex Geveden, NASA Associate Administrator

A t last count, NASA had more than a dozen associate and assistant administrators overseeing everything from space operations to small and disadvantaged business utilization.

Rex Geveden is not another associate administrator. He is the associate administrator, effectively NASA’s No. 3 official, responsible for all technical operations of the agency. That includes all of NASA’s regional field centers and programs. He chairs NASA’s Program Management Council, the agency’s top-level program review board that decides the fate of big-ticket projects that run into trouble.

In Geveden’s words, his job is to keep NASA running smoothly on the inside so agency Administrator Mike Griffin and his still-to-be confirmed deputy are free to focus “up and out.”

“The up and out piece is very demanding right now,” Geveden said. “There is not just Capitol Hill and the White House, there are also the international partners. With all the external demands, you can certainly argue for having an associate administrator to do the down-and-in work of the agency.”

Geveden is not NASA’s first associate administrator, but he’s the first in a while. “It was last featured prominently under Webb, when Webb, Seamans and Dryden ran the agency,” Geveden said, referring to James Webb, Robert Seamans and Hugh Dryden, the trio that led NASA through most of the Apollo era.

“Webb was focused up and out, Dryden was the science guy [and] Seamans was really sort of the general manager of the agency,” Geveden said. “And that’s the concept that Griffin has for this job.”

Geveden recently spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger about layoffs, the exploration vision, the evolving role of field centers and contractors at NASA.

NASA is preparing to buy out or lay off some of its employees. Why?

We are going through a very significant change in our strategy. We have been in a launch-shuttle and build-space station kind of mode, and the president came and gave us a new and exciting vision, which requires a different set of skills. So the primary driver is skill related. We are going to be doing less low-level technology research, for example, and more developmental work related to human spaceflight and exploration-focused robotic missions.

How many employees must NASA eliminate?

The short answer is we don’t know yet. We are evaluating the skills we have on hand and the skills we are going to need. We have a very deliberate strategy in place to reduce the number of layoffs. But let me be clear that we are not growing the agency, and we are not doing this just to protect jobs for the sake of protecting jobs. We have some precious skills at our field centers and we intend to use them for the benefit of exploration.

Will NASA headquarters be exempt from layoffs?

No. We are building our work-force requirements here from the bottom up, doing what some people call a zero base review. I call it an institutional requirements review. We have said notionally we would like to get headquarters down to 1,000. We have between 1,300 and 1,400 employees here today. Agency-wide, NASA has between 17,000 and 18,000 employees. We expect to have something less than that when we are done.

Griffin kicked the space agency into high gear when he took over in April. Between Hurricane Katrina and the public’s somewhat cool reception to the exploration plan, is NASA losing momentum?

Griffin’s primary objective was to get exploration planning rolling and that has happened. We rolled out the Exploration Systems Architecture Study in September. Griffin has also been installing his management team and working on the science and aeronautics portfolio. I think we still have a huge amount of momentum. It may not be obvious from the outside but I certainly feel it internally. I think NASA employees are exhilarated by the energy, clarity and decision-making taking place here.

What about the American public?

Our hope is that the nation will want to press forward on this exploration program despite some of the problems we are facing today. I truly believe that this whole exploration thing is about the future. It’s about where this species is headed, it’s about technology leadership, economic leadership and scientific leadership. We need to make these investments as a nation if we want to continue to lead.

Griffin called the exploration architecture “Apollo on steroids.” Is NASA’s management approach also taking cues from Apollo?

In some ways, yes. We have decided to put headquarters in charge of things like policy, strategy, architecture, compliance, and legislative and regulatory affairs. We don’t want headquarters to be involved in the program- and project-management business. We are just not going to do that. The technical capability exists at the field centers where it should, so that is where we intend to execute programs and projects. Yes, the plan is for decentralization, but it’s decentralization with a very specific idea of how those functions are allocated between headquarters and the field centers.

Are you restoring a system in which field centers are able to operate as independent fiefdoms?

No, we are not restoring the fiefdom system. Administrator Griffin has been establishing a management team he can work with, a management team that has to be oriented toward NASA’s best interest and not toward a particular field center’s best interest. You avoid the fiefdom problem by having the right kind of managers. You can also separate the institutional chain of command from the program chain of command and that is what we’ve done. The program chain of command runs from the mission directorate associate administrators at headquarters to the program managers at the field centers. The institutional chain of command runs from my position here at headquarters to the field center directors down to their engineering directorates and so on. The field center directors will be responsible for providing institutional support — engineering capital and safety and mission assurance functions, for example — to the programs managed there. But because field center directors do not make decisions on behalf of the programs and because they are not in the program chain of command, they will not be in the position to advocate on a program’s behalf.

Is NASA through with putting contractors in the role of lead systems integrator ?

Exploration is a program that will be measured in generations, not in years. It will span many presidential administrations and many more congressional elections — perhaps 15 to 20 before we go to Mars. When you have a program that has that kind of duration, the question is where do you want your intellectual capital to reside? Do you want it outside the organization at a prime contractor or do you want it internal to NASA? Griffin has decided it needs to be internal to NASA, because you want to have the institutional memory about all the systems trades and cost trades that you made and about why the architecture is the way it is. We certainly don’t think it is wise to contract out that type of thing. That is why we have said that Johnson Space Center, for example, will be responsible for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, and Kennedy Space Center will lead the vehicle’s launch processing and recovery functions. But these programs consist of large components and we are going to expect our prime contractors to do a significant amount of systems engineering and integration like they always have.

NASA in the past has tried to ensure that Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory always have at least one big mission under development in house. Will you continue that practice?

Yes, in fact I will be implementing it on a broader scale throughout NASA. The science centers have done a great job of keeping one or two big in-house missions in the pipeline. That creates a situation where we have smart buyers and knowledgeable engineers and managers. You will see more of that happening on the human spaceflight side as well.