Managing Space Administration


NASA is more than astronauts.

We are scientists, engineers, IT specialists, human resources specialists, accountants, writers, technicians and many, many other kinds of people.[1]


The space agency best known to the public as ‘NASA’—National Aeronautics & Space Administration—was brought into existence by the United States Congress with the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. Congress created NASA to research matters related to flight, both within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere. While pioneering space/flight research, it was also developed “to ensure that United States’ space activities were peaceful and beneficial to mankind.” NASA is technically an independent civilian space agency under the purview of the executive branch of government, created for ‘special services’ in the ‘national interest’. Similar to a cabinet-level organization, the agency’s administrator gets nominated by the President and then must be confirmed by the Senate.[2]

 “…I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish…” (President John F. Kennedy) [3]

Presidents have set long term policy directives; achievable & ambitious, grand & impossible. NASA establishes goals, objectives, and implementing strategies to accommodate these policies while also pursuing directives to meet the needs of external customers.[4] The agency proposes an annual budget, which gets incorporated into the President’s annual budget and submitted to Congress for appropriations. “NASA’s success in carrying out its mission and achieving presidential directives is highly dependent upon funding from Congress” [5] and vice versa, the agency’s rate of success (or failure) subject to their scrutiny and tightening of the purse strings.

As a “civil service employees responsible for conducting aerospace research and development, managing resources, and operating the various NASA facilities,”[6] the agency “must have an infrastructure to deliver goods and services and account for the money spent…it requires an enormous work force (over 18,000 employees and 40,000 contractors) and a large budget ($17B, FY 2008)…they need people to develop and build new technologies, assemble and test spacecraft and their components, train astronauts/pilots and provide mission support services. With each task, there are workers to employ and pay, contractors to hire and supplies to purchase.”[7]

The organization incorporates both vertical and lateral structures within two primary levels of management responsibility. The first is Agency management, headed by the Administrator and chiefs (and deputy chiefs) of staff; followed by Strategic Enterprise management, of the ‘endeavors’ and ‘operations’ of the agency, which includes facilities and programs. “Internal integration is ensured through a number of management councils and boards that coordinate activities and planning among the individual Enterprises and between the Agency and Strategic Enterprise management levels… on critical topics that cross organizational lines.”

“Agency management provides Strategic Enterprise definition and is responsible for cross-Enterprise efficiency, synergy, investment, performance assessment, and resource allocation…This management level is responsible for Agency leadership, managing across the Strategic Enterprises, and developing NASA’s strategy (“what, why, and for whom”).” It serves as the intermediary between the Agency and stakeholders; the Presidency, Congress, and external. “It is the external focal point for accountability, communication, and liaison; the Administrator is the Agency’s highest level decision maker, providing clarity to the Agency’s vision and serving as the source of internal leadership to achieve NASA’s mission.” [8] The Administrator’s Office (and apparatus) is headquartered in Washington, D.C. The Office oversees all aspects of NASA operations. It “includes the administrator, deputy administrator, associate deputy administrator, associate administrator, assistant associate administrator, chief of staff and deputy chief of staff/White House liaison. “

The Administrator’s office also has a support staff, responsible for much of the Agency’s management and performance. This includes the offices of the Chief Safety and Mission Assurance Officer, Program Analysis and Evaluation, Program and Institutional Integration, and Inspector General.[9] Other officials within the Office of the Administrator “include Chief Engineer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Scientist, and the Chief Technologist…“These offices overall strategic direction and policies for the organization and establish the Agency’s relative priorities, associated budget guidelines, and performance assessment.”[10] The Administrator’s Office also receives independent advice and assessment from several NASA Advisory Committees, including: Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, NASA Advisory Council, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Public Administration; with the aim of improving Agency safety, efficiency, and accountability.[11]

Under the Administrator’s purview, the Strategic Enterprise (mission aspect) of NASA consists of four principle organizations called mission directorates: Aeronautics, Exploration Science, and Technology.[12] The bulk of the Agency’s employees and contractors work in this arm of NASA, and jobs are mostly related to the technicalities of high-stakes research. 60% of NASA employment is characterized by Professional, Engineering and Scientific specialists with mid-level or advanced degrees. Of the remainder, approximately 25% are employed as technical writers, or in public relations. Analysts, administrative, labor, and technical support/specialists round out the remainder of the operations, in positions related to infrastructure maintenance and quality assurance.[13]

The process of Strategic Planning enables alignment between the NASA Strategic Plan with the Enterprise Strategic Plans, the Agency’s institutional capabilities, and its functional requirements and initiatives. This process provides the direction for all Agency efforts and forms the basis for strategic (5 to 25 years) and tactical (1 to 5 years) decision making, resource allocation, and capital investment. (1998 NASA Policy Directive) [14]

NASA’s approach to Strategic Planning establishes the long-term direction of the organization “in the context of a vision of the future, organizationally unique mission, and a specific set of goals, objectives, and policies developed in response to customer requirements, external mandates, and the external and internal environments.” The expectations developed by the institution are to be Specific, Measureable, Aggressive but attainable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound.[15] The organization must also comply with the Requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA), which attempts to improve performance in governmental agencies by requiring these Federal agencies to implement longer term Strategic Planning. This is done to “effectively measure program outcomes and to systematically hold them accountable for achieving program results.” This approach is initiated with a series of pilot projects, and these projects “set program goals, measure program performance against those goals, and report publicly on their progress…and aims to improve delivery by providing new focus on results, service quality, and customer satisfaction.”[16]

The Implementation Planning phase of NASA’s work encompasses “detailed performance planning and proposed resource allocation to implement the goals, objectives, and other organizational initiatives” that were identified during the Strategic Planning. It helps to ensure Agency-wide alignment of strategy and cooperation of supporting organizations. Implementation Planning works within of the processes established in the Strategic Plan, and it’s responsible for “the commensurate milestones, resource requirements, schedules, and performance criteria at both the program and task levels.[17] The goals primary goals are to Provide Aerospace Products and Capabilities, Generate Knowledge, and Communicate that knowledge.[18]

In execution, NASA is expected to ‘Crosscut’, as a Quality Assurance/Control, while it fulfills its mandate of delivering products, research, technical, and other scientific expertise to its customers. These Crosscutters “work at all levels within the Agency to ensure that products and services are effective and delivered efficiently.”[19] Performance is rated by NASA Managers using Agency-established measures to evaluate progress in meeting the goals identified in the Strategic Plan. These measures are uniform between both the Agency & the Enterprise. The goals and objectives established in the Enterprise Strategic Plans are also “aligned with the Administrator’s Performance Agreement with the President.”

Personnel goals are delivered to the Agency through the Associate Administrator for Human Resources and Education. Their office “designs, develops, and administers appropriate levels of training for all levels of managers and employees on both the general principles of strategic management. They also convey to employees and contractors “specific details regarding GPRA, NASA’s Strategic Management Process, the NASA Strategic Plan, performance planning and measurement, and the role each individual plays in supporting the implementation of strategy.”[20] Human Resources also “ensures that employees, and the teams on which they participate, are rewarded through bonuses, promotions, and development opportunities. These are provided for meeting or exceeding: Excellent performance in the implementation of NASA strategies; Contributions to the achievement of the goals and objectives contained in the Agency Strategic and Implementation Plans; Encouragement and implementation of agency change and an increase in process efficiencies; and Explicit contributions to the identification and satisfaction of customer needs.”[21]


“NASA, the world’s leader in space and aeronautics, is always seeking outstanding scientists, engineers, and other talented professionals to carry forward the great discovery process that its mission demands. Creativity. Ambition. Teamwork. A sense of daring. And a probing mind. That’s what it takes to join NASA, one of the best places to work in the Federal Government.” (NASA Career Webpage)

NASA describes its workforce as “consisting of Federal civil service employees, students, contractors, university researchers, and many others, representative of all levels of America’s rich diversity.”[22] NASA notes that their application process has been “specifically developed to ensure that (they) only ask you for the information (which they) absolutely need to evaluate…qualifications and eligibility. “In order to apply, you only need to submit your resume and answer the screening questions and supplemental information.”   The application and resume screening is conducted by a recruitment software program, called STARS, which uses a commercial rating tool named Resumix. The software “uses artificial intelligence, and an enormous grammar base, to “read” resumes, extract information, and rate resumes in ‘context’,” after which, they are “reviewed by a Human Resources specialist before referral decisions are made…to make sure that referred applicants meet job qualifications.” [23] NASA also gives ‘special consideration’ to applicants who qualify with ‘10-point preference’. These people are individuals who, “as a result of military service or as a result of their connection to someone with military service, are entitled to special preference in the Federal hiring process.” Disabled veterans, spouses of disabled veterans, widows/widowers of deceased veterans, and mothers of deceased veterans are also included.[24]

‘Pathways Programs’, signed into law by a 2011 Executive Order, provide an avenue for students and recent graduates to be considered for Federal employment. The Pathways Programs include the Internship Program, the Recent Graduates Program (RGP), and the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF); all designed “to provide clear paths to Federal employment for students and recent graduates…by replacing the Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP) and the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP), and enhancing the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program.”[25] Much of the NASA team “consists of the numerous contractor companies located both at NASA facilities and throughout the world.” While the in-house hiring is standardized, “each of the contractor companies handles their own application process and hiring” which must work within the NASA parameters.  Members of a uniformed service of the United States apply for work with the agency (of any variety) through their service branch.

“What’s in it for the workers?” NASA appears as an organization which balances the many trades, skills, and personalities of its institution, and gives them a chance to participate in a large, worthwhile human endeavor. Far more than just a bunch of astronauts and rockets, NASA is a ‘machine’ of skill and applied expertise, ‘a small city’ of diverse background and experience, and ‘a bureaucracy’ which governs a strict, but quality achieving mandate.



[3] President John F. Kennedy, “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs,” May 25, 1961













[16] Ibid.


[18] Ibid.








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