NASA starts at ground level
- By Paula Shaki Trimble
- Apr 03, 2000
NASA may be launching a counterpart to its "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy:
find people, keep people, train people.
This grassroots approach comes in response to recent internal and independent
reports underscoring problems with NASA's program management and space shuttle
For the first time in seven years, the space agency has requested a
funding increase to replace workers who have left. NASA's work force has
shrunk by nearly 25 percent during that seven-year period. The funding increase
would give the agency the opportunity to hire about 2,000 new workers over
two years, said NASA administrator Dan Goldin during a March 22 hearing
before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Science,
Technology and Space Subcommittee. "We have to compete with the dot-com
companies," Goldin said. Luckily, he said, NASA offers a perk Internet companies
don't: exploring new frontiers in space.
Although the agency may be able to attract the best and brightest minds
to its state-of-the-art projects, it must train them to meet NASA's unique
challenges, mentoring them especially in the trademark faster, better, cheaper
approach. Otherwise, Goldin said, smart people fail to use common sense
when they notice problems that may cause delays or increase project costs.
NASA's decline in staffing, particularly in the space shuttle program,
has resulted in the erosion of critical skills in areas such as robotics,
remote sensing engineering, information technology security, microgravity
research and technology, optics and human factors, said Allen Li, associate
director of the Defense Acquisition Issues, National Security and International
Affairs division at the General Accounting Office.
"The concern we have...is this is not a good situation if you're predicting
doubling the flight rate of the shuttle with the [operation of the] International
Space Station," Li said. "If people are stressed now, what's it going to
be like when you double the work load?"
NASA is taking steps to head off the problem. Goldin has started working
on innovative approaches to hiring, such as recruiting recent college graduates
for short-term employment in government (see box). He also wants to tap
universities for courses that could help train NASA workers that are new
at project management and space systems development.
Recent criticism associated with the failure of two Mars missions and
the failure to catch wiring and other safety problems on space shuttle missions
can be partially attributed to inadequate training of workers new to leadership
positions, Goldin said. The peer review process has been flawed by inexperience,
In response, NASA "will have the world's best training program," Goldin
said, adding that the agency is still designing the program.
The ability to understand specific problems at an agency like NASA requires
on-the-job training from someone with institutional knowledge, Li said.
"These are not skills that are easily received by getting somebody just
out of school," Li said.