NASA Starts at Ground Level

WASHINGTON (04/03/2000) - 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 safety.

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. 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, he said.

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.

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