NASA veteran lands on Hill

Unlike many of the attorneys and analysts who work on the staffs of congressional oversight committees, Delores Moorehead brings years of federal agency experience to her job at the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Moorehead, the committee's special assistant for information management and technology, is actually a NASA employee who is working on detail as the committee's information technology guru. She spends her days examining how the Department of Veterans Affairs uses IT to serve the roughly 25 million veterans in the United States today. But what sets her apart from many of the other policy pundits on Capitol Hill is that she actually knows how IT works.

In 1963, fresh out of Texas Christian University, Moorehead— with a mathematics degree in hand— took a job as a systems analyst at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she worked with engineers to develop software for the Apollo and Gemini space missions. She stayed at the job until 1969, then took some time off, returning to the work force in 1974 to work for Lockheed Electronics Co.

At Lockheed, Moorehead oversaw a mammoth database called the "Master Measurement Data Base System, a system that was used to record and track all the measurements and commands associated with NASA's space shuttle equipment. For example, the system cataloged data on fuel levels and oxygen levels as well as any incident in which a particular caution light switched on or off. Shuttle mission controllers could use the database to monitor shuttle performance in real time or to test equipment before a launch.

Moorehead, a Fort Worth, Texas, native, said working on NASA programs such as the space shuttle taught her an important lesson that has carried over into her current job: Failure is unacceptable.

"Failures are just not tolerated on a manned space program," she said. "You just can't have failures."

In 1978, a few months before the Lockheed contract under which Moorehead worked got handed off to Computer Sciences Corp., Moorehead resigned and took a professional detour to help run a small taxi company that she and her husband partially owned. The company, Canary Minicab, shuttled passengers between an airport on the outskirts of Houston and the heart of the city. "If you see a need, fill it," Moorehead said, explaining why she and her husband ventured into the world of small business.

The Canary Minicab venture lasted for only a few years and didn't absorb too much of Moorehead's life. In fact, only a few months after leaving Lockheed, she went back to her old NASA stomping grounds— working this time as a senior analyst for shuttle-program contractor CSC. While at CSC, she worked her way up to manager of the program support office in Houston— a job in which she oversaw everything from janitorial services to financial reporting for contracts. In 1984, before leaving CSC for a job at Intermetrics Inc., she became a senior member of the advisory staff for CSC's Houston center, helping craft proposals for contracts.

At Intermetrics, Moorehead managed a program for developing space shuttle flight software and then moved into a job as director of advanced program development in the company's Houston division. In that position, Moorehead began working on more than software. The new job got her involved in strategic planning, marketing and business development. "I had a good experience there because I was working at the corporate level," she said.

But it wasn't long before Moorehead's former employer, NASA, beckoned to her. In 1990 she returned to the agency as a manager of information systems at the Johnson Space Center. Soon, she was helping to manage the program integration office for NASA's Space Exploration Initiative, pulling together all the details and logistical information on what it would take to create a lunar outpost or launch a mission to Mars. Her office was responsible for providing data ranging from the number of people needed for space exploration missions to the types of satellites needed.

In 1992, Moorhead transferred to NASA headquarters. Her husband, also a NASA employee, was already moving into a new job at the agency that required him to be in the Washington, D.C., area. At NASA headquarters, Moorehead served as director of the Information Systems Division in the Office of Space Systems Development, and later she served as special assistant to the chief information officer.

In 1995 she got to experience how things worked beyond the executive branch and the world of contractors. She got to experience how things work on Capitol Hill. The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs brought her on board to help determine how well the Veterans Benefits Administration was modernizing its information systems. Although enmeshed in the activities of the committee, Moorehead's paychecks still come from NASA.

Moorehead welcomes the work she performs for the committee, according to Charles Battaglia, majority staff director for the committee. "With very little guidance, she has been keeping the pressure on the VA in terms of meeting the requirements of [the Government Performance and Results Act] and in terms of trying to reach closure on the Y2K problem," he said.

Battaglia credited Moorehead with convincing VA leadership to focus on managing IT more intently. As a result, the VA recently separated the role of CIO from the job of chief financial officer. "She recognized that you cannot do information technology on a part-time basis, so she pressured the VA to have a separate chief information officer," he said.

But for Moorehead, there's more to IT at the VA than a new CIO post. Her aim is to get VA agencies working more in conjunction with each other and to using IT to share data and manage programs in a seamless fashion. "They can't work in a vacuum," she said. "They need to pull together. Their biggest challenge, as I see it, is understanding where they want to go."

Moorehead will not have long to prod the VA toward that vision. Because she is a NASA detailee, the committee won't get to keep her forever. Battaglia said Moorehead will probably return to NASA within the next month, adding that he expects to have a difficult time replacing her. "She is a solid individual here who picks up an area that few people understand," he said.

As for Moorehead, she is not exactly sure what her next NASA job will entail. But she is sure that her new experience from Capitol Hill— as well as all her previous experience with NASA and private companies— will give her the crucial knowledge of federal IT issues that she will need to do that job.

"I've been very lucky; I've had three perspectives," she said. "I look forward to putting all of those things together— in whatever my next job may be."

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