Beyond the Shuttle

As NASA makes another giant leap, the agency must shift its workforce to a new mission while safely finishing out the old one.

When President Bush charted a new vision for space exploration in 2004, NASA began looking to what would be its most critical asset: its people. With the new mission-which involves retiring the space shuttle program in 2010 and moving to an architecture that will take Americans to the moon and possibly to Mars and beyond-NASA chalks up brain power as the major factor that will carry it into the next space age. The Constellation program will shift the focus of NASA's workforce, which has been largely on operating spacecraft, to a recurring cycle of development and operations. That cycle ranges from safely flying out the space shuttle manifest and completing assembly of the International Space Station to developing systems and preparing them for flight by 2015.

Those new systems are expected to provide a safer mode of transportation for astronauts-NASA's Ares rockets, named after the Greek god associated with Mars, and the Orion crew exploration vehicle, both of which will borrow some of their shape from vehicles of the past. The Ares I and Ares V rockets will launch Orion and cargo into space. Once in space, Orion will carry crew and cargo to the International Space Station, the moon, Mars and beyond. With such an ambitious agenda and timeline, the space agency has been integrating workforce planning into its strategic plans, all with the goal of adapting employees to rapidly changing mission requirements. This effort involves learning some lessons from history, beefing up training, and using new personnel flexibilities to align the shuttle program's 1,700 civil servants and 15,000 contractors with the new mission. At the same time, those challenges have posed an opportunity for NASA to bring some of the work previously contracted out to private firms back into the hands of civil servants.

History Lesson

Workforce planning is a major project, valued on the same level "as building a spaceship," says Joel Kearns, transition manager for NASA's space operations mission directorate. "Human capital involves regularly scheduled technical interchanges, information packages and periodically scheduled studies. You have to be very proactive in doing this; it's not just happening by itself."

That sentiment took off nearly five years ago, Kearns says, when NASA Administrator Michael Griffin realized the pending shift in mission would be the most significant change the agency and its employees had seen in more than three decades. While most employees did not experience firsthand the 1972 transition from the Apollo human spaceflight program to the shuttle program, the lessons learned were front and center, he says.

NASA's failures in running the shuttle program also came to light. After the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia accidents, each of which resulted in the deaths of seven astronauts, attention turned to the possibility that poor communication and decision-making were endemic in the space agency's culture. The mishaps forced NASA to reinforce its emphasis on safety and turn around its management apparatus.

"Coming out of the Columbia accident, NASA was set on a new course," Kearns says. "Since that time, we've been planning how we're going to be transitioning our people, infrastructure and contracts as we finish the space shuttle mission and the International Space Station and get people back to the moon and Mars."

The biggest lesson, by far, is the importance of communicating with employees about the changes they might experience, says Michael Wetmore, associate director for engineering and technical operations at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Because the decision to end Apollo and move to the shuttle program was so abrupt, he says, NASA was caught with little planning or knowledge about the impact on the workforce; the result at Kennedy was a loss of 9,000 jobs.

But with at least six years of lead time to plan for the transition to Constellation, NASA has been communicating with its civilian and contractor workforce at every turn. The majority of the 4,500 jobs the agency projects will be lost across the human space flight workforce will affect mostly contractors. Many of them understand that their future at NASA depends largely on whether their companies win work on Constellation. "Depending on where you sit, you have a feel for how this is going to work out for you as an individual," Kearns says.

On the civil servant side, the key has been assuring employees that they will have work after the shuttle program ends, says Susan Leibert, human capital manager for the space shuttle program. NASA has conducted an annual survey of civil servants since 2006 to gauge their opinions and plans for the transition, she says. Employees responding to the surveys have indicated that security in knowing their fate after the shuttle would be their top motivator for staying with the program.

The good news, Leibert says, is the number of employees who've stated their intent to stay has gone up every year. Since work on the shuttle will lapse in 2010, NASA faces the challenge of ensuring it has the workforce necessary to support the program through its retirement. "We've looked at the risk of losing critical skills and making sure we can maintain people until the end of the program," she says.

Mapping the Future

The key to a successful transition, officials say, is drilling down the competencies of NASA's workforce and determining how those skills align with the new mission. To strike a balance, NASA is using a three-phased strategy called workforce mapping. "We're looking at the workforce and how it's going to transition to Constellation, so we can get an idea of when skills would be surplus and when other skills would not be needed," says Toni Dawsey, assistant administrator for human capital management. "That means the number of surplus skills is going to be fewer, if any."

The strategy has proved effective in advising employees what skills or training they might need. It also has enabled the space agency to better control its workforce by helping managers decide whether a job should be contracted out, given to a civil servant or put under a term appointment. "If someone decides to leave to take another opportunity, instead of backfilling, you could contract out that work," Kearns says. "That way, when we get to 2011, it's not that we have a full-time government employee or too much of a skill."

The 2004 NASA Flexibility Act gave the agency leeway in managing its workflow by easing limits on term appointments. Traditional civil service law allows term appointments for up to four years, but NASA can grant such appointments for up to six years and convert them to permanent status. The agency's goal is to evolve to a science and engineering workforce made up of at least 15 percent temporary appointments by 2013. Such appointments have become standard for civil service hiring, Leibert says, comprising 8.3 percent of the workforce.

Still, NASA's largest federal union-the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers-has spoken out against using more term appointments, arguing that they undermine the civil service and diminish transparency, in part because term employees might not be as open about fraud, waste or abuse if they fear they could lose their jobs. They also diminish the government's ability to recruit top science talent, the union says, taking away the government's most attractive benefit-job security.

"NASA needs to have strategic workforce management where it is maintaining the long-term health of the agency," says Leland Stone, a legislative representative for NASA council of IFPTE locals. "Any great institution dominates its workforce planning with long-term strategic planning. When you have an agency that is doing tactical planning and not strategic planning, you're lessening the institution."

But Leibert says term appointments do not diminish the civil service, largely because term employees have the same protections and benefits as permanent employees. "What we find is that we typically end up converting most of the term employees to permanent positions at the end of their appointment," she says. "We've found it to be a pretty flexible tool."

NASA uses another management method known as matrixing to support its multiple programs and balance the shifting workload. Functional skills, in areas such as engineering or operations, are sourced within a specific center, allowing various programs to tap into that expertise as needed. The process fosters cross-training, broader skills development and less downtime, Dawsey says.

Since the number of civil servants will remain largely unchanged throughout the transition, officials say, NASA is investing a fair amount in training and career development. One such approach, known as workforce synergy, involves sharing the civil servant workforce across the shuttle, space station and Constellation programs. The goal is to enable steady progress toward the development of the Constellation program while also ensuring that critical skills are available to conduct the remaining shuttle missions.

"As much as possible, it's a shared workforce," Wetmore says. "Our engineers who are working operations on the shuttle program are already starting to charge their time to the design of the new set of hardware. They're bringing all of their lessons learned from their years of operating the shuttle to the design of the Ares and Orion space flight hardware."

Other training is more specific. Civil servants are trained in systems engineering, project management and other technical areas such as earned value management systems. NASA brought back some retired civil servants to help with systems training, Dawsey says.

"That seems to be working for us as a strategy," Leibert says. "The retraining, the mapping and the matrixing seem to be coming together to help us manage the workforce flow of the program over time."

The transition to Constellation not only brings an opportunity to integrate workforce planning into the strategic plan, it also presents a chance to transfer much of NASA's technical and design work back in-house.

Downsizing during the 1990s caused NASA to contract out many of its shuttle activities, including safety oversight. After the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster, the Columbia Accident Investigations Board said a combination of budget and staff cuts and contracting out of key NASA operations were compromising the safety of the manned space program. "We are trying to be smart about where the civil servants actively get involved in the design, versus simply hiring a contractor to tell us what we need," Wetmore says. "NASA needs to be leading this issue, not following the contractors' lead."

A report released in February 2007 by the National Academy of Public Administration made recommendations on how to home in on the most important criteria for determining whether to use civil servants or contractors. The goal was to help the agency set acquisition and workforce priorities in a transparent and strategic manner. "All too often, those decisions were being made out of cycle, and they weren't having the discussions together to make the decision early enough on how to acquire," says Alethea Long-Green, a program area director at NAPA. "We know that NASA has changed its practice."

Officials credit Administrator Griffin with instilling the desire to raise the profile of NASA's civil servant workforce. The idea, they say, is NASA cannot be a good customer without being more active in the design and engineering of the services it's looking to acquire. On the Constellation program, "the core of every project is a government team," Kearns says.

"NASA isn't a production house," he says. "With the exception of one-of-a-kind satellites, whenever we start talking about building a rocket, we're going to contract that out to industry. But in terms of the front end, such as design and technical decision-making, we're bringing that work back in-house."

Facing the Future

With such intense planning, officials cite their optimism for a smooth transition to Constellation, but they acknowledge hurdles, including budget constraints, a possible extension of the shuttle program to as late as 2015, and the transfer of national leadership to President-elect Barack Obama. "There are a lot of unknowns," Leibert says. "All of those things are going to affect what policy decisions will be in effect and how this plays out."

In a Sept. 22 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Obama stated his support for NASA's transition activities. But he noted that the Bush administration's plan for Constellation hadn't been funded adequately. The apparent lack of funding and leadership could result in an extension of the shuttle program beyond 2010, he said, in order to provide "a smoother transition of NASA's shuttle workforce, infrastructure and capabilities to new systems."

The union's Stone says extending shuttle operations could result in a more graceful transition, but warned that NASA would need a heftier budget, largely to recertify the shuttle vehicles to ensure safety. "We look forward with optimism that the new administration will take a new approach to budgeting," he says.

Despite the challenges, human capital officials remain focused on cultivating a capable and committed workforce that can manage the remaining shuttle missions and advance Constellation to operating capability. "We need to make sure that we do not lose sight of our current flight vehicle while we get excited about the new one we're in process of building," Wetmore says. "Our top priority is to safely fly out shuttle; our next priority is to support Constellation, and then we have to plan the changeover between there."

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