Acting Director Christensen Upbeat About NASA Ames Research Center's Future

Status Report From: Ames Research Center
Posted: Friday, May 12, 2006


Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2006 Issue of Astrogram - just before S. Pete Worden began as Center Director

"The one constant in life is change," began Marvin 'Chris' Christensen in his April 20 all-hands address to a standing- room only crowd in the main Ames auditorium. In fact, 'change, challenge and opportunity' were the recurring themes of his candid, but upbeat, assessment of the status and future of Ames. "Ames is in a major transition," Christensen observed, "and change is still coming." While the changes we have undergone have been challenging and those remaining are "going to be dramatic," he noted, "if we embrace them, they can be positive and improve the center. We have a great opportunity," he concluded.

NASA is more fortunate than most government agencies, Christensen pointed out. The president's budget for NASA is $16.8 billion in FY '07, a 3.2 percent increase over the previous year. "It's not that there's not support for NASA," he said, the issue is "how will the pie be divvied up?" Ames is facing its third year of budget challenges, he noted. In FY '06, Ames' budget is down $65 million to $657 million, and over 250 civil servants remain without programmatic funding. Ames' budget projection --for FY 07 is $533 million, he said, a further major reduction.

Exploration is where most of the funding currently is, and exploration is "where we're going to go" to increase Ames' budget, Christensen added, noting that Ames must establish a role in core NASA programs. Given all of the changes in the agency, Ames' Exploration Technology directorate was "unraveling" in 2005, Christensen said. But, by finding a way back into the "mainstream of NASA ... in '06, this organization has done a yeoman's job of getting back on track."

Next, Christensen addressed the budget cuts facing Ames' science programs, the fundamental changes ongoing in aeronautics, and the status of several key Ames projects, including Kepler, the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program (RLEP), and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

Funding for SOFIA was zeroed out for '07 and was reduced by 30 percent for '06, he said. However, Joel Kearns, Carol Carroll and their team did an outstanding job during the independent assessment, he reported. "Reviewers were impressed with the team," he said, and SOFIA has a chance to come back and be whole. Similarly, Christensen observed that RLEP passed a December '05 review of their readiness and preparation to serve as a program office "with flying colors."

And the program offices were not the only groups Christensen singled out for praise. He also cited the center's support organizations, all of which are pitching in to help the program office save SOFIA and prepare Ames for future mission management responsibilities. However, there's still a lot of work to be done, he said. We must ensure that Ames' existing processes are streamlined to ensure timely completion of mission tasks or "we'll just have to get other processes," he observed to enthusiastic applause. Indeed, at Christensen's urging, NASA headquarters recently ran a pilot workshop at Ames designed to perform a joint 'institutional readiness review' of Ames' mission support organizations. The objective is to determine ways to strengthen Ames' support organizations to enhance the center's capabilities in project and mission management.

Christensen laid out a strategy for Ames' recovery and future strength that includes developing a 'skunk works' to build satellites, attracting more work packages, winning more competitive proposals, and restoring our reputation for project management and job completion.

With regard to the skunk works concept, Christensen said Ames will construct a 'satellite center' in building N240 to develop small satellites that cost less than $250 million. He reported that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin not only expressed approval of the skunk works concept, but also opened the door to the prospect of Ames taking on even larger projects.

"But we are going to have to do things differently, or we'll go out of business," Christensen declared. "I think everybody's getting that message." Center Operations Director Lewis Braxton and his group have done a great job, reducing institutional costs by 14 percent, he said. The sale of Camp Parks provides potentially $6 million to fundother facilities, he added. The lease of the National Full-scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC) to the Department of Defense will also reduce institutional costs while maintaining capabilities, he noted.

Administrator Griffin has repeatedly stated his commitment to NASA having "ten healthy centers," Christensen said. One way that this is being addressed is through a concept called 'shared capabilities.' This means that NASA headquarters will support facilities that have 'national-level capabilities,' he said, noting that high-end computing at Ames is already funded through this mechanism. The Ames arc jets, 20-G centrifuge, Vertical Motion Simulator and other facilities are currently under consideration for funding by Headquarters through this avenue, he added.

With regards to new work packages and projects at Ames, Christensen said that it is not only important to get new work for the center, it is also vitally important that we meet our commitments and deliver. "If we get new work and we don't get the job done, we'll be in trouble," he said. Ames is not perceived as having "very strong project and program management . . . we've got to change that," he added.

Christensen noted that the workforce level is still a major concern for 2007, with 280 to 300 uncovered people projected for that year. We're not going to survive if we don't find productive, funded work for these people, Christensen said. It is imperative that "healthy centers . . . re-delegate work to Glenn, Langley and Ames." There are preliminary work packages under discussion that could bring about 150 'newwork' positions to Ames from Kennedy, Marshall, and Johnson, Christensen noted. Headquarters is also evaluating a number of other Ames proposals for new work, he said.

In addition, Ames' New Business Council is helping the center to strategize its marketing efforts with respect to proposals and other areas. This includes actively seeking out reimbursable opportunities with other agencies that bring both near-term funding and could result in future contributions to the NASA mission. Christensen also said that Ames' new Space Portal activity will create innovative opportunities in NASA commercialization, and foster relationships with industry, particularly the entrepreneurial space industry, that will contribute to our small satellite work.

Christensen warned, however, that the notion of what constitutes a "healthy center" has never been precisely defined, observing that, depending upon who you talk to, "healthy" for Ames might mean a total complement of as few as 1,200 people. In that case, retraining would be the best available option, he said, but we may have to accept the fact that, no matter what we do, some people might not fit.

In closing, Christensen observed that Ames has made a lot of progress. "We have managed our way through an extremely difficult period. We have a strong approach to solve our unfunded problems going into FY '07," he concluded.

The take-away messages, he said, are that "we see light at the end of the tunnel and that we are fundamentally sound. Institutionally, we will be smaller, but Ames will be more NASA mainstream. Once we have stabilized, growth will follow. We will earn our way into program and project management. We will become a satellite builder for NASA, as we did with Pioneer and Lunar Prospector."

"The future is ours to shape and to capture," he concluded, to strong applause.

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