How NASA Does Procurements: The Painful Truth

written by David Mixson

If you want to know how NASA does procurements, you could read the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) and the NASA FAR Supplement. I’m joking. Please don’t. At least not right now.

Instead, let’s look at an example.

If NASA wanted a new vehicle to take us to Mars, we would spend six months writing requirements, three months standing up a Source Selection Board (SEB) with five voting members, three months coming up with questions for industry about best practices for the procurement via a Request for Information (RFI), six months writing and releasing the draft Request for Proposal (RFP), three months waiting for and answering questions about the draft, and three months polishing the final RFP. 

Two years from the start, NASA could finally be ready to submit the official RFP for companies to evaluate and propose against.

Then it’s evaluation time.

Next, the SEB would spend three months waiting for companies to write proposals, six months evaluating and scoring proposals, two months getting approvals from procurement advisors that our scoring appeared fair, and one month finalizing charts for the Source Selection Authority (SSA).

After the presentation to the SSA, the SEB would spend one month waiting for the SSA to make her decision, two months conducting debriefs, one month waiting for the protest period to expire, and two months getting the contract updated and signed by NASA procurement and the winning bidder.

But it’s not necessarily over. In many cases, one or more losing companies files a protest through the Government Accountability Office (GAO). This legal review takes an additional three months.

If GAO finds that the SEB made a mistake, the process might have to be started all over—sometimes with new SEB members.

Don’t roll your eyes. I’ve seen simple procurements in their fifth year with no end in sight because companies kept filing protests.

To keep things simple, let’s assume everything goes smoothly, and three years from the beginning of the procurement process, NASA would be ready to select the best proposal. Once this is done, the winner can BEGIN the process of actually designing and building a new vehicle.

The Real World

In most procurements, there’s more than one round of scoring, and weaknesses from the SEB findings are given to companies so they can fix them. This could take another six months for companies to update their proposals and for the SEB to rescore them.

I also left out scheduling constraints that delay things even longer. Getting on the SSA’s calendar was difficult on both SEBs I worked. So was getting NASA attorneys to review our findings in a timely manner.

And to keep things in my example simple, I left out other necessary tasks like hosting an Industry Day where the SEB hosts companies in-house to hear briefings about the contract and getting all the SEB voting members approved through NASA legal (and headquarters). This requires all sorts of documentation, including resumes, financial disclosure statements, and more bureaucratic steps in the process than I can begin to explain here.

And the timeline I presented above for scoring the proposals assumed only a few companies submitted proposals. This isn’t always the case. I’ve seen procurements that had a dozen or more companies submit proposals. More proposals means the SEB will need more time to process and score.

What’s my point?

The point of this example is to show how NASA does business in a perfect world. Now, consider how much time and effort is wasted when we cancel a program that has already made it through the procurement process and is in the hardware build phase.

Every time we do this, we’re tossing out at least five years of work.

This is why the notion that we should cancel what we’re doing and go somewhere else hasn’t worked.

But the problem goes even deeper than this. Why should we settle for the massively slow procurement process that takes NASA four or more years to award a contract? Why is this acceptable? We would have never reached the moon in seven years if we had needed four years to award the first contract.

The short answer is that this shouldn’t be acceptable. In future articles, I’ll make the case for overhauling NASA’s procurement process.

Note: The example I used above was for the complex task of designing a new launch vehicle. The crazy thing is that even simple repeat procurements for things like ongoing engineering support and janitorial services contracts follow a similar timeline and take just as long.

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About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

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