NASA Reorganization on Hold, FFRDC Report Headed to OMB

NASA Reorganization on Hold, FFRDC Report Headed to OMB

NASA’s FY2019 budget request proposed eliminating the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and refocusing technology efforts on the Moon/Mars program.  A recommendation on a new structure was expected this summer, but the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) was told yesterday that it is on hold because NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wants more time. Separately NASA was directed to look at turning its nine civil service field centers into federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs).  That report was being sent to the White House today.

Stephen Jurczyk, NASA Associate Administratior. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA Associate Administrator (AA) Steve Jurczyk briefed NAC on the status of these actions yesterday.  Prior to becoming AA, he was the head of STMD and before that the Director of Langley Research Center, so he has unique expertise on both topics.

The proposal to eliminate STMD is controversial.  It was created during the Obama Administration to focus resources on developing new crosscutting technologies that could be used for a wide range of space and aeronautics programs instead of being developed for a specific mission.  The other Mission Directorates have their own funding to advance technologies for their specific needs.

The Trump budget proposal would eliminate some of the work STMD is doing and merge the remainder with the Moon/Mars program in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).  NASA also proposed restructuring its budget accounts and its FY2019 request was formatted with those new accounts.  Congress must approve it, but has not completed action on the request. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees had mixed reactions.

In terms of the organizational structure, Jurczyk was tasked with assessing the pros and cons of two options:  creating a single new Mission Directorate combining all of STMD and HEOMD, or splitting it into two — one focused on technology and the other on operations.  HEOMD itself was created in 2011 by the merger of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) and the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD).  This option would restore that type of arrangement.

Jurczyk told NAC that during his review a third option emerged:  preserving  STMD and merging it with HEOMD’s Advanced Exploration Systems division. He said he briefed Bridenstine on these options a month ago, but Bridenstine wants more time to consider them in part because other organizational decisions are pending.  One is how HEOMD wants to structure itself internally as work on the lunar program gets underway, and another is the question of whether NASA’s civil service centers should be converted to FFRDCs.

The FFRDC proposal is not in the budget request, but the Trump Administration’s June 2018 plan to reorganize the government broadly.  FFRDCs are government owned, contractor operated facilities.  There are 42 FFRDCs throughout government that support 12 agencies, primarily DOD and the Department of Energy, but NASA has one of them — the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is renowned for executing many of NASA’s planetary science missions.  It is operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

The idea of converting NASA’s nine civil service centers (Ames, Armstrong, Glenn, Goddard, Kennedy, Langley, Johnson, Marshall, and Stennis), which are part of the federal government and staffed primarily by civil servants, into JPL-like FFRDCs is not new.  Jurczyk said his team looked at studies going back to the 1990s.  NAC member Bill Ballhaus added that when he was Director of Ames in the 1980s he was  directed by then-Administrator Jim Fletcher to investigate the possibility of converting Ames into an FFRDC, but it was difficult to get congressional agreement and Fletcher’s successor did not want to pursue it.

One external group that recommended converting the centers to FFRDCs was the 2004 Presidential Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy (the Aldridge Commission report).  NAC chairman Les Lyles was a member of that commission.

Converting a civil service organization into a contractor-run organization has never been done and the challenges would be considerable.  Jurczyk said this most recent NASA report would be sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) today and a briefing is scheduled for September 7.

All in all, Jurczyk said the goal is to integrate all these issues into a single plan and complete work by the end of the year.

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