Open Letter to NASA Administrator: The Ball Is In Your Court

written by David Mixson

To: The NASA Administrator

Today’s NASA is in desperate need of an overhaul. If we continue down the same path for much longer, there’s a chance we might not make it.

I’ve written a good bit about the problems inside NASA that are holding us back. Here, I’ll make the case for three things that need to happen for NASA to be great again. What we do next matters.

One: Safety

For NASA to be the world’s leader in space exploration, we must end our dysfunctional obsession with safety. This includes cube safety and our unreasonable tolerance for risk. I unpacked this in Safety Culture: NASA’s Debilitating Obsession With Safety.

Here, I’ll simply reiterate what Maslow discovered back in 1943 when he published Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—that focusing on safety restricts organizational performance.

Two: Procurements

For NASA to be effective moving forward, we must improve our procurement processes. NASA will never be great if we keep doing business the same way we’ve been doing it over the last decade, hoping that things will magically improve.

With the success of the Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) and Commercial Crew Program (CCP) contracts to carry supplies and crew to the International Space Station (ISS), I’ve heard you talk about moving toward more firm-fixed-price type contracts versus cost-plus type contracts.

That’s certainly a step in the right direction. But we also need to streamline the procurement selection process on contracts. Both firm-fixed-price and cost-plus contracts that take years to award are killing the agency. It’s gotten out of control. Even simple repeat procurements for things like janitorial services contracts can take years to complete. NASA can do better than this.

Getting public money to New Space and Old Space companies (via procurements done quickly and fairly) will be a key component to NASA’s success moving forward—and for getting more space for less money.

In the ’60s, NASA managers, engineers, and technicians started from scratch and landed men on the moon eight years later. Today’s NASA couldn’t get through just the procurements necessary to do all that in eight years.

This is my open letter, so I’m going to say it. If NASA doesn’t change the way it does business through procurements, the agency becomes obsolete fairly quickly.

Before we leave this topic, let me warn you about something. When you meet with your senior procurement officials about streamlining the NASA procurement processes, they will say it can’t be done because of the guidelines in the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) and NASA FAR Supplement.

You’re the NASA Administrator, so say what you want. But may I suggest something like:

“I’m tired of folks inside NASA (the same agency that took us to the moon) telling me it can’t be done. This agency is on the verge of becoming extinct. If you don’t think you can streamline our procurement processes, perhaps I should look for someone who thinks they can.”

Three: Smoke and Mirrors

For NASA to be able to compete with other nations, leaders need to stop with all the smoke and mirrors and start telling managers and engineers the truth. Today’s NASA just went nearly a decade without launching astronauts into space from American soil. And if SpaceX hadn’t come along, we would still be relying on the Russians. That would certainly be awkward with their war with Ukraine.

As a start, NASA leaders need to stop telling us that we’re the best at what we do and start telling us that we’re getting our ass kicked and that if things don’t improve, some of us will be out of a job. Actions need consequences. Performance matters. Great leaders don’t lie.

SpaceX Engineers

I don’t think for a second that SpaceX has a corner on the market when it comes to engineers and technicians. Not for a minute. But what SpaceX does have is urgency, competition, and processes that work. NASA engineers have a completely different set of constraints like cube safety, procurements that take years to complete, and cost-plus contracts that financially encourage companies to go slowly.

Making NASA more effective involves a rather simple set of parameters. But to change anything in a bureaucracy will be a gigantic task indeed.

Final Thoughts

With India’s recent landing of their Chandrayaan-3 rover near the South Pole on the moon, it won’t be easy for NASA to keep up. I’ll take that last statement one step further. Without significant changes, today’s NASA won’t be able to keep up. The ball is in your court.

Canceling the Shuttle without a replacement will probably go down in history as a mistake. Today’s NASA lost an opportunity to inspire an entire generation of youth because of it. We all have to carry some of that burden.

If you want to make a lasting difference during your tenure, change the processes. If you want to kick the can and do nothing, continue with the smoke and mirrors and say what we do is hard.

We need leadership at the top to make NASA great. We need someone who isn’t afraid to stand up and pound the table when the agency fails to deliver. We need straight talk and consequences.

A True Story

I once asked a Curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. if she thought NASA would exist in twenty years. I was surprised at the candidness of her response.

She paused for a few seconds as though she was trying to decide whether to tell me what she really thought. Then, with a soft voice, she said:

“I’m not so sure, but I certainly hope so.”

Just so you know, that was almost eight years ago.

If you’re open to hearing more, I laid out a 21-step plan to save NASA in “The Speech We Need to Hear.” If you do decide to read it, you might want to sit down first.

Note to former NASA Administrators: Thank you for serving as the NASA Administrator. I can only imagine how challenging that assignment would be. Several of you had to navigate tragedies. All of you had to navigate Congress.

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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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