The Basics: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Monday, July 11, 2022

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the United States’ civil space program. NASA studies Earth, its climate, the Sun, the solar system, and many more STEM topics. Recently, NASA has had an increased focus on climate change, even as it plans to send humans to Mars in this decade. NASA is adjusting its procurement strategy to be more cost-efficient by moving away from cost-plus contracts and to reduce redundant contracts by acquiring agency-wide when possible.

History, Mission, and Organization

NASA conducts research, testing, and development to advance aeronautics by developing and funding space technologies that will enable future exploration and benefit life on Earth. Its mission is to “explore the unknown in air and space, innovate for the benefit of humanity, and inspire the world through discovery.” NASA shares its knowledge to enable future exploration and benefit life worldwide, supporting education efforts in STEM and allowing companies to use NASA discoveries and technologies to develop new products for the public. It also maintains U.S. leadership in the space economy by aggressively pursuing critical technology gaps and global space technology leadership. NASA’s Core Values are safety, inclusion, integrity, teamwork, and excellence, with an emphasis on increasing diversity in the workforce.

Headquartered in D.C., NASA has about 18,000 employees and supports 312,000 external jobs. Each of its twenty centers and facilities throughout the United States is maintained by contractors who provide technical and business operations services. NASA also has the only National Laboratory in space. Above and below are map of NASA’s centers and facilities and its agency organization.

NASA in Action

NASA generated $64.3B in total economic output in FY19. Here are some of the activities that NASA has recently undertaken. 

Artemis Mission: NASA has been working with U.S. industry, international partners, and academia to bring to life the Moon to Mars exploration approach. The Artemis Mission began in 2017, looking to establish bases in lunar orbit and on the Moon’s surface. Using both NASA and commercial launch systems, NASA is developing new technology to send science research and later humans to the Moon that will assist in achieving a human presence on Mars. The Lunar Gateway, Orion, and human landing system are incorporated into these efforts as well. NASA plans to have humans on the Moon by 2025, although this date has already been pushed back from 2024. The Artemis Program hopes to land the first woman and person of color on the Moon.

Pulse Pendant: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is funded by NASA and managed by the California Institute of Technology, designed a 3D-printed device worn around your neck to alert you when you are about to touch your face. Using an infrared proximity sensor and vibration motor, the Pulse Pendant can help stop the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses. It is made using simple and affordable technology that is openly available for others to reproduce.

X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology Aircraft : NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley has been researching technology for future commercial aircraft for years, and this vision became an official project in 2010. NASA and its partners have developed a plane that can fly faster than the speed of sound, hypothetically cutting travel time in half. NASA expects to test fly the plane over communities in 2024 to see how the public perceives the quiet noise. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works finalized the design and tested it at Ames, and it is also collaborating with NASA to create a database of computational fluid dynamics that will supply data to train pilots. Looking ahead, new sound-based rules will be necessary for supersonic flight over land to minimize the impact of the sonic thump noise, and there are already plans to address this in 2027. 

Earth System Observatory: NASA is executing Earth-focused missions to collect and provide information about climate change, natural hazards, forest fires, and agricultural processes. This information will be used to guide policy on climate change. Satellites will create a 3D holistic view of Earth using two kinds of radar that can measure changes in Earth’s surface to less than a half-inch, meaning that NASA will be able to measure ice-sheet collapse and natural hazards. The Earth System Observatory is focusing on topics such as aerosols, cloud convection and precipitation, mass change, surface biology and geology, and surface deformation and change. NASA partnered with the Indian Space Research Organization to launch this project. 

Contract Procurement and Acquisition

NASA is a notoriously difficult agency to break into as a contractor, boasting a strong safety and data-driven culture. NASA encourages competition and external partnerships that bring about innovation and entrepreneurship and works with universities, small businesses, industry, emerging commercial entities, individual innovators, international partners, and other government agencies. 

Procurement and grant activities are managed through NASA’s Office of Procurement (OP), Office of Small Business Programs (OSBP), and the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). OP oversees the acquisition process and ensures agency compliance with the FAR and the NASA FAR Supplement; within OP, NASA’s Shared Services Center provides procurement services agency-wide. OSBP manages a proactive outreach program to encourage small business awareness and participation. The OSBP NASA Vendor Database (NVDB) is open to all vendors who want to work with NASA and a transparent vendor list is posted monthly. SMD awards over a thousand grants per year. The NASA Vendor Communication Plan outlines a communication framework for vendor engagement with OP during the acquisition cycle. 

Recent Contracts

NASA uses contracts to take advantage of academia and the private sector for insights into NASA’s activities. Below are some of the recent contracts NASA has awarded. 

Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services: A firm-fixed-price contract valued at $3.5B was awarded to Axiom Space, Inc. in June 2022 to demonstrate an Extravehicular Activity (EVA) system, including a spacesuit, tools, and interface equipment in an analogous environment. The contract is intended to support the International Space Station, Artemis, and advanced human spaceflight. NASA is transitioning from a government-owned hardware model to an “EVA as a service” model, and similar contracts are expected in the future. 

Microgravity Flight Services: NASA acquired space on commercial flights to fly technology payloads and human operators on flight platforms that have reduced gravity needed to test the technology. This Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) 5-year contract is worth $7.5M. Zero-Gravity Corporation won this total small business set-aside contract in September 2021.

Test, Evaluation and Support Team 3 (TEST3): In July 2021, Sierra Lobo, Inc. won an IDIQ contract with cost-plus-award-fee and firm-fixed-price task orders for continued test and operations support at the Johnson Space Center’s White Sands Test Facility and other locations. Sierra Lobo, Inc. is providing expertise and infrastructure for propulsion testing; propellants, aerospace fluids, materials, and components testing; hypervelocity impact testing; flight hardware processing; technical services; training; safety; quality assurance; facility maintenance and operation; construction management; and emergency services. This contract is a follow-on to the TEST2 contract and has a $400M ceiling with a five-year period of performance.

Contract Spending Trends

NASA spends about 78% of its budget on acquiring goods and services. The following pie charts and table depict the breakdown of FY21 awards by contractor type and business classification. This data encompasses contracts, grants, and other procurement activities.

With businesses receiving the majority of awards in FY21, large businesses took home 64.8% of total procurement dollars, but small businesses made up 39% of total actions.

NASA in 2022 and Beyond

NASA’s Strategic Plan for FY22-FY26 centered around four themes: 

  • Discover: Expand Human Knowledge through New Scientific Discoveries
  • Explore: Extend Human Presence to the Moon and on towards Mars for Sustainable Long-term Exploration, Development, and Utilization
  • Innovate: Catalyze Economic Growth and Drive Innovation to Address National Challenges 
  • Advance: Enhance Capabilities and Operations to Catalyze Current and Future Mission Success 

It reflects space-specific policy guidance provided by the U.S. Space Council and the United States Space Priorities Framework.

The Strategic Plan aligns with the following Biden-Harris Administration priorities:

  • strengthening the United States’ global leadership in space and aeronautics;
  • tackling the climate crisis;
  • building a sustainable human presence at the Moon and continuing human exploration on towards Mars;
  • spurring innovation that builds back better and creates jobs; 
  • leading an alliance of international partners to enhance cooperation in space and stimulate commercial activities in low Earth orbit; and
  • advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in a way that inspires present and future generations.

This plan seeks to answer five Priority Questions as well:

  • How can NASA enhance its early-stage innovation and partnership investment strategies to support American leadership in space technology?
  • To what extent do NASA’s cost and schedule models, when used early in spaceflight project development, accurately predict final costs and schedules?
  • To what extent has the Enterprise Data Platform (EDP) been adopted and used to drive decision-making?
  • How do NASA’s procurement and grant practices advance equity for improved access to opportunities for underserved communities?
  • How do NASA Internships broaden the participation of underrepresented and underserved students to advance equity and build a diverse future STEM Workforce?

NASA has a $23.2B budget for FY21 or about 0.5% of the entire federal budget. Some of its goals for 2022 are to test planetary defense capabilities, send a spacecraft to a metal-rich asteroid, test fly the first all-electric plane, measure the pollution of North America, and break the American record for a single spaceflight.

Regarding procurement, NASA has four continued focus areas:

  • Standardization of policy, work instructions, and templates;
  • Enterprise procurement community;
  • Amplified communication strategy; and 
  • Performance and metrics.

In the FY23 Budget Request, NASA requested $25.9B total, an 8% increase from the FY22 request. It includes $1.4B for space technology, $244M for the development of commercial space stations, $2.4B in Earth science and observations to make climate data available to scientists and policymakers, $500M to reside climate impact of aviation, and $244M to work with industry on commercial space stations.

NASA is also focusing on the Artemis Program and the Mission to Mars. By the end of FY23, NASA plans to have multiple companies under contract to develop systems for sustainable human labor exploration. 

The Agency-wide Acquisition Support Services contract expires in September 2024, and recompetition is expected to begin in Q2 of FY23. 

NASA is exploring contracting and management approaches to reduce the costs of future exploration missions. It is working to move away from cost-plus contracts to reduce spending and schedule overruns, using competition and fixed-price contracts in place of the traditional cost-plus contracts. Additionally, NASA is working to reduce duplicative procurements and consolidate on certain acquisitions. This is already being seen in the switch from construction and communications services contracts from being awarded through various orders in different centers to being structured to serve NASA agency-wide. NASA is evaluating whether regionalized or centralized contracting approaches would be more beneficial for different types of products and services, such as logistics and administrative services, when looking to consolidate. However, environmental compliance contracts are enacting the opposite, moving from Interagency Acquisition Agreements to each center being responsible for its own requirements. Overall, NASA is taking a hard look at which acquisition procedures will be most beneficial based on the type of product or service being acquired and which NASA body is acquiring it. 

Researched and authored by Haley Boulanger, Pulse Analyst.

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