NASA needs management overhaul, shuttle investigators told

In its final public hearing Thursday, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board moved beyond the search for the immediate cause of the loss of the space shuttle on Feb. 1 to probe the overall state of NASA's management. Witnesses told panel members that the agency suffers from several key weaknesses, especially in the areas of workforce planning and contract oversight.

"NASA, like many federal agencies, is facing substantial challenges in attracting and retaining a highly skilled workforce, thus putting the agency's missions at risk," Allen Li, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the General Accounting Office, told the panel.

In January 2001, GAO reported that NASA's shuttle workforce had been cut to the point of reducing the agency's ability to safely support shuttle operations. "Many key areas were not sufficiently staffed by qualified workers, and the remaining workforce showed signs of overwork and fatigue," Li said.

Since then, NASA has reversed downsizing efforts, developed a strategic human capital plan, and begun creating an agencywide workforce planning and analysis system. The agency is currently seeking a series of personnel reforms from Congress, including streamlined hiring authority for certain scientific jobs and the ability to offer larger recruitment and retention bonuses.

NASA's management of contractors has been on GAO's high-risk list since 1990, "because of its ineffective systems and processes for overseeing contractor activities," Li told the panel. He said the agency has made "noteworthy progress" in improving contract management in recent years. NASA has developed new systems for monitoring the procurement-related activities of its field centers, and has cut back on allowing changes to contracts without negotiating costs and prices.

In fiscal 2002, NASA spent approximately $13 billion-85 percent of its budget-on contractors.

To better track how that money is spent, the agency has embarked on its third effort in recent years to create an integrated financial management system. The new system is expected to cost $861 million by the time it is completed in 2008. But because program managers were not involved in the development of the system, it is not being designed to integrate key cost and schedule data, Li said.

Marcia Smith, a specialist in aerospace policy at the Congressional Research Service, gave the panel a history of NASA's budget situation, but cautioned panel members that it would be difficult to directly tie budgetary changes to safety problems in shuttle operations.

Russell Turner, former CEO of United Space Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that runs shuttle operations, defended the work of the firms on the shuttle program.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.