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Presidential panel urges NASA overhaul

Presidential commission to recommend spinning off at least some of NASA's field centers and relying more on private industry.
Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, chairman of the President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond, listens to testimony during a March hearing in Atlanta.John Bazemore / AP file
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A commission chartered by President Bush to advise him on implementing a broad new space exploration vision is recommending streamlining the NASA bureaucracy, relying more heavily on the private sector and maintaining more oversight of the nation’s space program at the White House.

The is scheduled to release its final report June 16. A copy of that report, “A Journey to Inspire, Innovate and Discover,” was obtained by Space News.

The 60-page report outlines the organizational changes the commission says NASA needs to make if it is to achieve the space exploration goals laid out by Bush in January. Those goals include returning humans to the moon by 2020 in preparation for eventual human expeditions to Mars.

The nine-member commission, headed by former U.S. Air Force Secretary Edward (Pete) Aldridge, said that if those goals are to be met, the nation needs to commit to space exploration for the long haul, and that the private sector must be given a much larger role in the U.S. space program.

“The commission believes that commercialization of space should become the primary focus of the vision, and that the creation of a space-based industry will be one of the principal benefits of this journey,” the report states. “Today an independent space industry does not really exist. Instead, we have various government-funded space programs and their vendors. Over the next several decades — if the exploration vision is implemented to encourage this — an entirely new set of businesses can emerge that will seek profit in space.”

Prizes and the private sector
The commission calls upon NASA to reach out to small, entrepreneurial firms through business opportunities targeted to them. The commission also endorses NASA’s plans to award large cash prizes to encourage technological innovation. And the commission encourages Congress to enact tax incentives, provide regulatory relief, and clarify and protect property rights in space to encourage commercial exploitation of the final frontier.

In the more immediate future, the commission wants NASA to turn over nearly all launch activity to private firms.

“The commission believes that the private sector is willing and capable of providing the initial boost into low-Earth orbit for the payloads associated with the vision,” the report states. “To foster the continued development of this emerging market, the commission believes that NASA should procure all of its low-Earth orbit launch services competitively on the commercial market.”

The commission specifically exempts the launching of human crews from this recommendation, saying in the report that it realizes this responsibility “will likely remain the providence of the government for at least the near-term.”

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said on Wednesday that he had neither seen the commission’s report nor been briefed on its recommendations. But during a speech delivered at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce earlier that same day, O’Keefe pledged to heed the commission’s recommendations on transforming the space agency.

“The Aldridge Commission has given a great deal of thought to how we should be organized in order to achieve these objectives,” O’Keefe said. “We will be willing participants in implementing their recommendations. We are determined to transform the agency and our way of doing business to put these goals within reach.”

Agency reorganization
The report says NASA needs to transform its organizational structure, business culture and management processes, “all largely inherited from the Apollo era,” if it is to accomplish the multidecade exploration agenda laid out by the president.

The commission wants NASA to transform itself into “a leaner, more focused agency” starting with a major headquarters reorganization that reduces the number of mission-focused departments, or what NASA calls enterprises.

Planning for such a reorganization is already well under way at NASA. A draft organization chart circulating within NASA depicts a pared-down agency in which the current Office of Space Science and Office of Earth Science are combined into a single organization, and biological and physical science research activities are folded into the Exploration Systems Office.

The commission would also have NASA create several new organizations to improve its managerial effectiveness, including a technical advisory board similar to the Defense Science Board that regularly reviews Pentagon programs, and an independent cost estimating organization modeled after the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Improvement Group. Since O’Keefe took the helm in 2001, he has called on the CAIG at least once to pore over the international space station program’s notoriously out-of-whack numbers.

Transforming field centers
The commission saves perhaps its most pointed criticism of NASA’s organizational structure for its network of field centers spread across the United States. NASA maintains a comparatively lean headquarters organization, delegating most program and operational responsibilities to its 10 field centers. The field centers design, build and operate many of the spacecraft NASA puts in orbit. NASA critics often cite the turf battles between the field centers, many of which have overlapping responsibilities, as a major impediment to progress.

“They have Apollo-era infrastructure that needs substantial modernization,” the report states. “They lack institutional incentives that continuously align performance with the vision’s need. Personnel practices have too often ossified, placing insufficient priority on innovation, professional growth and managerial mobility.”

While the commission points out that “in some instances, they support duplicative capabilities that unnecessarily raise NASA costs to the taxpayers,” the report stops short of recommending closing any centers.

Instead, the commission recommends transforming NASA’s field centers into Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, or FFRDCs, like many of the Department of Energy’s flagship laboratories.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., commonly misidentified as a NASA field center, is actually an FFRDC managed by the California Institute of Technology. It is staffed by Caltech employees, not federal civil servants.

By turning NASA’s field centers into FFRDCs run by a university, nonprofit or even a for-profit organization, according to the report, many of NASA’s 18,000 employees could look forward to compensation and personnel benefits that are competitive with the private sector. The space program, meanwhile, would benefit from the entrepreneurial culture, technical competence and responsiveness to any agency’s needs characteristic of an FFRDC.

Turning field centers into FFRDCs could also make it easier for NASA to shed some of its work force. The commission does not dwell on this point in the report but does note that FFRDC’s “have personnel flexibility similar to the private sector.”

But not all field center responsibilities would be taken out of the hands of civil servants. Under the commission’s plan, some functions, including contracting and launch and flight operations, would “remain under direct federal management” within a given field center.

Call for creating a steering council
The commission is also calling for the establishment of a so-called Space Exploration Steering Council reporting to the president. The last time that such a body reported to such a high level was the White House National Space Council during the first Bush administration, which was headed by Vice President Dan Quayle.

The purpose of the steering council, the report says, is to help NASA in its work, not micromanage the agency or second-guess operational decisions.

“When they work well — and typically such bodies do — White House coordination can expedite complex decisions, and improve interagency coordination,” the report says. “It is, however, also a useful prod for NASA to keep its house in order.”

The report says that the council should augment, not replace, existing interagency bodies such as the Partnership Council, which meets at least annually to discuss projects and technologies of mutual interest to NASA, Air Force and National Reconnaissance.

Enabling technologies identified
The commission also identified 17 enabling technologies needed to accomplish the exploration goals. These include an affordable heavy-lift capability, advanced power and propulsion, automated spacecraft rendezvous and docking capability, high bandwidth communications, closed-loop life support systems, better spacesuits for astronauts and others.

While praising NASA for establishing the Office of Exploration Systems to oversee development of the hardware needed for exploration, the commission also recommended that NASA establish a separate organization modeled after the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to manage projects that really push the technological envelope.

The commission would also like to see NASA create an organization similar to the Central Intelligence Agency’s In-Q-Tel, a quasigovernmental venture capital firm that widely scoured the private sector for technologies that might have important national security applications.

100-day deadline
When Bush chartered the commission in January, he asked Aldridge to report back within 100 days with recommendations on how best to implement the new space exploration goals. The committee conducted much of its work in public, holding five televised public hearings in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Dayton, Ohio.

Bush also asked the commission to consider the role that international cooperation should play in carrying out the vision.

The commission said it is “hard to envision” a national space program that does not include international participation, but stopped far short of calling it necessary for success.

The commission said it is not clear what role international cooperation should play at this stage. However, it did suggest that international participation should be modeled after the Joint Strike Fighter program, which permitted foreign partners to influence the direction of the effort based on the extent of their investment but retained authority over key decisions within the United States.