Space Shuttle:

Actions Needed to Better Position NASA to Sustain Its Workforce Through Retirement

GAO-05-230: Published: Mar 9, 2005. Publicly Released: Mar 24, 2005.

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The President's vision for space exploration (Vision) directs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to retire the space shuttle following completion of the International Space Station, planned for the end of the decade. The retirement process will last several years and impact thousands of critically skilled NASA civil service and contractor employees that support the program. Key to implementing the Vision is NASA's ability to sustain this workforce to support safe space shuttle operations through retirement. Because of the potential workforce issues that could affect the safety and effectiveness of operations through the space shuttle's retirement, GAO was asked to identify (1) the progress of efforts to develop a strategy for sustaining the space shuttle workforce through retirement and (2) factors that may have impeded these efforts.

The Space Shuttle Program has made limited progress toward developing a detailed long-term strategy for sustaining its workforce through the space shuttle's retirement. The program has taken preliminary steps, including identifying the lessons learned from the retirement of programs comparable to the space shuttle, such as the Air Force Titan IV Rocket Program, to assist in its workforce planning efforts. Other efforts have been initiated or are planned, such as enlisting the help of human capital experts and revising the acquisition strategy for updating the space shuttle's propulsion system prime contracts; however, actions taken thus far have been limited. NASA's prime contractor for space shuttle operations has also taken some preliminary steps to begin to prepare for the impact of the space shuttle's retirement on its workforce, such as working with a consulting firm to conduct a comprehensive study of its workforce. However, its ability to progress with these efforts is reliant on NASA making decisions that impact contractor requirements through the remainder of the program. Making progress toward developing a detailed strategy, however, will be important given the potential impact that workforce problems would have on NASA-wide goals. For example, a delay to the space shuttle's schedule due to workforce problems would delay the agency's ability to proceed with space exploration activities. NASA and its prime contractor for space shuttle operations have already indicated that they could face challenges sustaining their critically skilled workforces if a career path beyond the space shuttle's retirement is not apparent. In addition, governmentwide fiscal realities call into question whether funding will be available to support the use of incentives, such as retention bonuses, that could help NASA sustain its space shuttle workforce. Several factors hamper the Space Shuttle Program's ability to develop a detailed long-term strategy to sustain the critically skilled workforce necessary to support safe space shuttle operations through retirement. For example, because of the program's near-term focus on returning the space shuttle to flight, other efforts, such as assessing hardware and facility needs that will ultimately aid the program in determining workforce requirements, are being delayed. In addition, program officials indicated that they are faced with uncertainties regarding the implementation of future aspects of the Vision and lack the requirements needed on which to base their workforce planning efforts. Despite these factors, our prior work on strategic workforce planning has shown that there are steps, such as scenario planning, that successful organizations take to better position themselves to address future workforce needs.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better position the agency to sustain a critically skilled space shuttle workforce through retirement, the Acting Administrator of NASA should direct the Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Operations to implement an approach, as part of its preliminary planning efforts, for identifying the program's future workforce needs that takes into account various future scenarios the program could face. The program should then use this information to develop strategies for meeting the needs of its potential future scenarios. The information collected and strategies devised during scenario planning will then be readily available to be incorporated into the program's detailed workforce planning efforts once any uncertainties have been resolved.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO was asked to identify the progress of NASA's efforts to develop a strategy for sustaining the space shuttle workforce through retirement and factors that may have impeded these efforts. In 2005, GAO found that the space shuttle program had made limited progress toward developing a detailed long-term strategy and several factors, such as a near-term focus on returning the shuttle to flight, hampered the program's ability to develop that strategy. GAO recommended that NASA take steps to better position the agency to sustain a critically skilled space shuttle workforce through retirement by implementing an approach for identifying the program's future workforce needs that takes in to account various future scenarios the program could face. Further GAO recommended that NASA should use the information gained to develop strategies for meeting the needs of potential future scenarios. NASA concurred with GAO's recommendation and has addressed it through its internal processes that govern development of the President's Budget request and supporting Congressional Justification materials. Through its Strategic Planning Guidance, which governs NASA's budgeting process, the agency looks at multiple programming options for allocation of resources to achieve its goals, which are based in potential scenarios that may occur and how the Agency would budget for these scenarios. The NASA FY2009 SPG was released on February 21, 2007, and emphasized that in achieving its goals, NASA would need to complete a re-establishment of workforce capabilities. Each NASA Center was required to evaluate measures of workforce capability to assess the overall capability of the total workforce and other characteristics such as the ability to align the workforce to a range of future work. Centers were directed, using guidance from the FY2009 SPG, to plan against a baseline of work, and programmatic variations on that baseline as prescribed by the various Agency mission organizations. To implement the requirements of the SPG at the mission directorate level, specific lower level guidance was developed jointly between the Space Operations Mission Directorate and the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. This guidance was intended to establish a baseline approach for retiring the space shuttle and transitioning to the Constellation program that was supplemented by several planning options for doing so. To provide a basis for the development of workforce inputs for NASA's strategic plan, NASA developed a workforce transition strategy that was released in March 2008. This strategy, which is intended to change as the maturity of the data inputs increases, includes high and low projections of future contractor workforce levels as well as projects of civil servant levels at NASA centers affected by the transition. These projections were based on several variables, including contractor information, facilities needs, and program requirements, some of which are well defined and others that are less defined. According to NASA, this approach was chosen to (1) allow the programs to better assess and respond to workload change; (2) identify risks associated with having too many, too few or incomplete resources for certain scenarios; and (3) better determine what, if any resource changes would be warranted to respond to plan dynamics. Consistent with our recommendation, the intended outcome of such an approach is to allow for less "crisis planning" and a more gradual development and implementation of workforce solutions.

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