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.
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.
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.