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Assessment of Technology Development in NASA's Office of Space Science Executive Summary The 1995 Space Studies Board report Managing the Space Sciences (NRC, 1995) examined the changing environment in which science is conducted at NASA, alternative organizational structures for managing science, prioritization of science at NASA, and development of technology in support of science. The management of technology development was emphasized because NASA's new approach to smaller, more frequent, lower-cost missions requires ongoing new technical developments in order to ensure the continuing flow of achievements in space science that our nation has enjoyed. In addition to actions taken in response to the 1995 report, NASA has made a number of organizational changes that affect the technology development programs. Most pertinent was the assignment of responsibility (and budget) for cross-program technology development to the Office of Space Science (OSS). The increasing enabling power of new, flight-ready technology (recognized also by an interested Congress), coupled with important organizational changes within NASA, prompted OSS to request this NRC follow-on study to assess NASA's current approach to technology development. The Space Studies Board established the Task Group on Technology Development in NASA's Office of Space Science to conduct this study. The importance of planning as the first step in the technology development process was emphasized in Managing the Space Sciences. In that regard, the task group recognizes the transfer of the technology function to OSS as a positive action. Programs under the space science enterprise (one of four mission program areas in NASA's strategic plan) are the largest consumers of space technology. Furthermore, OSS has a well-developed strategic planning process. OSS enlists a large segment of the external scientific community, through a broad advisory committee structure, in the development of its science roadmaps. This process is being extended to include development of time-phased technology roadmaps in support of OSS's science missions. Maturation of this process should be continued and subjected to external review 1 within 1 year. Much advanced technology development (ATD) has application to more than one NASA enterprise. Advances in the use of lightweight structures, autonomous navigation, precision pointing, electronic component miniaturization, detector development, and data compression, for example, have application not only to space science missions but also to those pertaining to other NASA enterprises. It would be fiscally irresponsible to allow separate, overlapping technology development programs in such fields. Accordingly, NASA has grouped such technologies under the label “Cross-Cutting Technologies,” which also have been assigned to OSS. Unfortunately, in this case the planning has not matured to a satisfactory level. The establishment of the position of Chief Technologist in the Office of the Administrator is a useful step, but the position of Chief Scientist, which has stood vacant for 2 years, also should be filled. Management of such a cross-enterprise program is more difficult than management of enterprise-specific programs. 1 The term “external review” as used in this report signifies evaluation by independent, objective experts whose outside perspective and expertise in the subjects at hand can broaden and strengthen the feedback they provide. “Peer review” is the term commonly used throughout the scientific community. The task group has elected to use “external review” to emphasize that it does not mean simply the review of technology by scientists, but merit review by appropriate, independent, relevant experts.
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Assessment of Technology Development in NASA's Office of Space Science Effective management of cross-cutting technologies by OSS requires improved collaboration and communication among enterprises and individuals, even if many of the latter are already stretched. The task group recommends a planning process that mirrors the one used by OSS for the space science technologies. The 1995 report made a number of recommendations regarding the selection and management of technology programs using the best-qualified individuals or teams within NASA, industry, and academia as determined by peer review. The report went on to note that where NASA in-house capability is unable to compete on the basis of quality, NASA should decide whether to abandon the activity or to improve its quality so that it can compete. The task group believes that true, world-class competency is required to compete on such a basis and does not believe that NASA's current definition of “core competency” would meet this test of competition in many of its technologies. For one thing, some NASA Centers2 claim that their core competencies cover an extensive and broad range of technologies. No organization that has realistic fiscal constraints can hope to be competitive or world class across such a sweep. Modern industrial organizations are confining their core competency technologies to those that are key to their competitive survival and that are not available to be purchased at a lower cost on the outside. NASA should develop equivalent constructs for defining the core competencies of the Centers. NASA should recognize that when a technology important to its missions is available on the outside from either academic or industrial organizations, this fact represents a NASA success. In many cases NASA provided the vision and funding for that technology sometime in the past. NASA should now leverage that success and confine its core technologies to those needs that can not be met better by outside developers. External review can assist NASA in defining its core competencies, but competitive results in terms of degree of innovation, advances in the state of the art, and impact on cost and performance will be the ultimate test of those competencies. Some of NASA's core competency groups are already world class and should be able to compete successfully with external groups for technology programs. Other areas may require some nurturing before achieving true core competency status. In such cases it may be necessary to target some limited ATD funds for this purpose, but a deadline should be set for accomplishing the objective, not to exceed 3 years. ATD funds should not be used more broadly to bolster in-house capability. A narrowing of core competencies to those that meet stringent criteria will mean that NASA personnel will not be the performers in all technologies that support the principal mission responsibilities of a particular Center. In the past, NASA has relied on the “smart-buyer” argument for maintaining many of these technology development activities even when they may have been available externally. Neither the concept of core technology nor NASA's budget constraints should be invoked simply to support the continuation of past practice. Further, there is ample evidence that there are alternatives to maintaining in-house, hands-on R& D programs that can be used to achieve smart buying. The variation in approaches used by agencies of the Department of Defense such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the three military services demonstrates that there is no single avenue for procuring technology. Each agency, including NASA, can point to stunning 2 To distinguish between NASA Centers (e.g., Ames Research Center or Goddard Space Flight Center) and NASA's centers of excellence, the former is capitalized (“Centers”), and the latter is referred to in lower case (“centers”).
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Assessment of Technology Development in NASA's Office of Space Science successes (as well as unfortunate failures). The most appropriate strategy for maintaining the expertise needed to be a smart buyer can vary depending on the nature of the organization and its missions. Thus, NASA would do well to examine alternatives and develop an explicit strategy for remaining a smart buyer. Increasingly, successful approaches to acquiring the skills needed to be a smart buyer involve enhancements to workforce mobility. Increasing workforce mobility can improve organizational effectiveness in many ways, by facilitating the transfer of information, obtaining fresh points of view, and maintaining workforce expertise. Use of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act and cooperative agreements with outside organizations are options that NASA can use to support exchanges of technical staff. To be most successful, an ATD program should have its planning and execution involve a careful mix of centralized and decentralized activities, which, in NASA, means appropriate roles for headquarters and the Centers. Planning should be a headquarters-led effort with execution residing at the Centers. The 1995 NRC report made it clear that management of the technology selection process, including make-vs.-buy decisions, should be retained at headquarters. The selection process for near-term technologies for particular missions can be delegated to the Centers when they are not competing for the technology development activities. This division of responsibility is necessary to eliminate both perceived and real conflicts of interest. As NASA exits from non-core-competency technology execution, it should be possible to delegate more of the management and selection process to the Centers. Collecting cost data within NASA for analysis purposes is very difficult. Part of the difficulty is associated with NASA not operating on a full-cost basis. More important than analysis, however, is the problem that this lack presents to rational management decision making. NASA wholeheartedly agreed with the Managing the Space Sciences recommendation to move to full-cost accounting. Unfortunately, 3 years later NASA still states that it is a year or two away from the goal. The task group cannot emphasize too strongly the necessity, for NASA's own management purposes, to accomplish this task expeditiously. The task group was surprised, when conducting this review, that useful historical data were not readily available on such items as the breakdown of long- versus short-term research support, in-house versus academic versus industrial technology performance, and the amounts competitively awarded. The task group hopes that when it shifts to a new accounting system, NASA will access, track, and use such information in the related planning process. Many of the recommendations of the above mentioned 1995 NRC report, as well as the present report, call for external review and advice. External review is recommended for the planning function, review of programs, evaluation of competing proposals, core competency selection, and Center quality review. Providing adequate headquarters staff to handle the reviews, utilizing clear investment and performance metrics, and making Centers accountable to headquarters are essential elements of the review process. Effectively implementing the review and advisory process depends on a synergistic relationship between NASA, academia, industry, and other government organizations that has, in large part, already been achieved and needs to be increased and maintained. It carries on a tradition that goes back to NASA 's predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Nevertheless, the final decision making is always a government responsibility, putting a premium on the quality of NASA's personnel. The task group hopes that the recommendations of this and the previous NRC report will assist in promoting excellence in all aspects of the nation 's space endeavors. To that end,
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Assessment of Technology Development in NASA's Office of Space Science NASA should make regular formal reports to appropriate external bodies on its response to the recommendations. REFERENCE National Research Council (NRC). 1995. Managing the Space Sciences. Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. Committee on the Future of Space Science. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
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