NASA shrinks Ames Research Center

Back on Earth, budget cuts hit space studies

NASA’s Ames Research Center is offering buyouts to all but 70 of its 1,400 federal employees, including many information technology experts. The center, in Mountain View, Calif., developed technology for the Mars rovers and one of the world’s fastest supercomputers.

NASA officials announced the week of March 7 that they would offer IT workers buyout packages with a federally mandated cap of $25,000. Ames officials told employees that at least 400 civil servants and 400 contractors would be laid off if they do not accept the offers, union officials said.

Chris Knight, vice president for negotiations at Ames Federal Employees Union and a Computational Sciences Division employee, said the buyouts apply to all IT workers except three in visualization and robotics. But the amounts will not be enough to convince most people to leave, he said.

“A lot of the research centers are being basically bled dry,” Knight said.

NASA officials said Ames will eliminate up to 25 percent of its employees in supercomputing and space exploration robotics. They expect 10 percent of the center’s 70 supercomputing workers and 10 percent of 100 robotics workers to take the buyouts.

Whether through buyouts, layoffs or other means, Ames officials ultimately expect to slash 15 to 20 positions in supercomputing and 20 to 25 jobs in robotics within the next year and a half, said Eugene Tu, deputy director of the center’s Exploration Technology Directorate.

If NASA cannot reduce the number of employees at Ames, they will layoff the workers or reassign them to other functions or centers.

“There is always that possibility out there that the agency will have to take some kind of involuntary separation,” Tu said.

The buyout move marks the second proposed cutback in recent months for federal supercomputing efforts. Although House lawmakers approved a bill last November that would create a program within the Energy Department for developing new computing capabilities, Energy’s proposed fiscal 2006 budget, released last month, largely ignores supercomputing.

Union leaders say the future of NASA’s supercomputing research is up in the air. “As far as I know, there’s not a whole lot of supercomputing going on at other centers,” Knight said. “The buyout is the tip of the spear of what’s really coming.”

NASA officials have already downsized the facility. Last year, they eliminated 50 of 120 supercomputing contractors, Tu said.

Ames’ Silicon Graphics-built Columbia supercomputer, which has hit processing speeds of 51.87 teraflops, is second in a worldwide performance ranking of the 500 fastest supercomputers.

Despite the job cuts, Ames officials will retain specialists in core areas, including supercomputing and outer space robotics.

“We have a bit larger capability at Ames than we predict the agency will need in the future, so we’re downsizing,” Tu said. At the same time, “we’re trying to be very careful not to get out of the information technology business and to make sure that the core areas that we’ve identified are sized correctly to meet current and future agency needs.”

In related news, NASA officials have said they may shut down the Voyager probe and other Earth-Sun System operations in October to help save $21 million. Officials do not know what will happen to IT specialists involved in those projects.

“The agency obviously will be assessing any specific impacts once a final decision on the fate of these missions is made,” spokeswoman Gretchen Cook-Anderson said.

Where no one has gone before

NASA recently announced job cuts at Ames Research Center. In the past 65 years, the center’s scientists and engineers have advanced aeronautics and space research with the following innovations:

  • The swept-back wing concept, which is used on all high-speed aircraft today.
  • The blunt body concept, used on every spacecraft to prevent burning during planetary entry.
  • The Pioneer planetary spacecraft, the first man-made object to leave the solar system.
  • The Viking Life Detection experiment spacecraft, the first spacecraft to perform experiments on another planet.
  • The Lunar Prospector, the vehicle that discovered water at the moon’s north and south poles.

    — Aliya Sternstein

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