Analysis: Reinventing NASA is only phase 1

By FRANK SIETZEN, United Press International  |  July 1, 2004 at 3:32 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- When President George W. Bush ordered NASA to develop a whole new space exploration agenda last January, he also directed the leadership of the space agency to review virtually everything it did.

Programs that did not contribute directly to his plan to return Americans to the moon, then go on to Mars and beyond, should be reviewed, the president said. If they did not serve a role in his space exploration vision, they should be moved aside -- or canceled altogether.

In response, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said not only would his agency's programs be reviewed, but the agency itself. By that, he meant the organization and the way NASA manages itself. The existing NASA, O'Keefe told both Congress and the commission Bush appointed to examine how to make the space plan a reality, could not be expected to achieve the new goals. Something had to change fundamentally to make room for the moon, Mars and other elements of the proposed plan.

Now, O'Keefe has begun the formal process of reinventing NASA. To begin -- in an effort he has termed a "work in progress" -- he has sought first to streamline the way NASA is organized and manages its space programs. Toward that end, he has made the largest change ever in the way the space agency operates and controls its field centers, bringing them under NASA's headquarters control for the first time.

The move was a step in bringing to an end their storied history of independence. How well they will respond to the massive changes is not yet clear.

This latest attempt at fixing a dysfunctional space agency -- as it was described by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board last August -- began with a presidentially appointed commission that last week released its own report about NASA's future.

The day the report was released, O'Keefe addressed the agency's employees by television from his headquarters in Washington.

"The recommendations released today by the commission will influence our work for years to come," he said. "Transformation is essential if we're going to position ourselves to meet the requirements of the president's initiative."

In place of the space agency's existing management structure -- a virtual alphabet soup of confusing codes and enterprise groups -- and a long list of associate administrators, O'Keefe announced a plan that attempted to realign NASA management so it more resembles corporate America than a federal bureaucracy.

Gone, for example, was an organizational structure of Strategic Enterprises, as the divisions were called. Now, the components are Mission Directorates, each with a single administrator at the helm.

The new NASA looks like this:

-- The Aeronautics Research Directorate supervises development of aeronautical technologies for safe and efficient aviation systems.

-- The Science Directorate conducts exploration of the Earth, the moon, Mars and beyond. This office combines several previously independent functions, including the Space Science and Earth Science enterprises.

-- The Exploration Systems Directorate, the newest part of NASA and previously called a code T, will develop and oversee human and robotic space missions that Bush called for in his Jan. 14 announcement.

-- The Space Operations Directorate will operate NASA's human spaceflight programs, such as the shuttle and International Space Station, as well as cargo launches of satellites and space probes, and space communications.

Flanking the four directorates will be a trio of agency-wide operations just as senior on its organizational chart: Safety and Mission Assurance, Education, and Facilities Management.

O'Keefe also established a series of management councils to provide him and his leadership fresh advice. He will head a Strategic Planning Council as a chief executive officer and will incorporate the four leaders of the directorates. A new job, Director of Advanced Planning, will be created to vet advanced ideas for the space program.

Last, a Chief Operating Officer Council will convert the recommendations of the planning groups into a plan that adheres to Bush's agenda.

What does all this shuffling mean?

First, no federal bureaucracy has ever successfully attempted to align itself like a business. Agencies are not corporations. O'Keefe's replacement of the space agency's previous management structure is therefore more radical than it might first appear. It would disconnect much of NASA's existing, bloated structure that many have suggested stifles both innovation and dissent.

Second, the agency's field centers will now come fully under the headquarters control. The Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will fall under the control of the Science Directorate.

The Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., will report to the Aeronautics Directorate.

The Kennedy, Johnson, Marshall and Stennis Space Centers -- at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Houston, Huntsville, Ala., and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, respectively -- will report to the Space Operations Directorate.

The big change is each of the senior managers of these facilities will report, not to the director of that center, but to NASA headquarters in Washington. For example, the chief lawyers at each center, or their public affairs head, will no longer report to their center director, but to their top lawyer and top PR person at headquarters.

Likewise, the budgets for each of these operations will be controlled by Washington. O'Keefe thinks this will help gain better control and eliminate duplication and waste at the center level.

O'Keefe is expected to take two additional steps in the weeks ahead.

First, NASA may release a request to universities and non-profits that seeks to gauge their interest in operating one or more of the 10 field centers as a Federally Funded Research and Development Center.

Second, later this summer, the agency may make a similar request to the space-launch community to see who would be willing to take management control over all cargo rocket launches and launch preparations at the Kennedy Space Center.

Both steps may help NASA fulfill key parts of the Aldridge Commission report -- named for its chair, former Air Force Secretary Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge Jr. -- which recommends greater private sector involvement in the agency's operations.

O'Keefe told NASA employees there were more elements of the transformation to come.

"Our task is to align headquarters to eliminate the 'stove pipes,'" he said. "We need to take critical steps to streamline the organization, and support the long-term exploration vision in a way that is sustainable and affordable.

After all, Bush appointed O'Keefe three years ago this November to, as he put it, "fix this place." The Aldridge report represents a roadmap for the agency's hopes for reform. O'Keefe's plan is a down payment of sorts on that intent.


Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail

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