Status Report

Testimony by Sean O’Keefe before a House Science Committee Hearing on “NASA’s Work Force” [Part 1]

By SpaceRef Editor
July 18, 2002
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b>Statement of Sean O’Keefe, Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Committee on Science, House of Representatives

I am pleased to appear before the Subcommittee today to discuss NASA’s Human Capital challenges.  The Agency faces a number of strategic threats to our ability to manage our Human Capital effectively and efficiently.  We are asking for a number of legislative provisions that will give our managers the tools they need to reshape and reconstitute the workforce to respond to these threats.

When President Eisenhower and the Congress created NASA, they sought to establish a government agency that could undertake and overcome the Nation’s technological challenges in aeronautics and space exploration.  Without NASA, there would be no American presence to take up these challenges.  During the Cold War, the very best minds of our Nation joined forces to transform the futuristic dreams of our parents’ generation into the historical reality our children learn about in today’s classrooms.  The legacy of that work continues today.  Across the Nation, NASA scientists, engineers, researchers, and technicians have made and continue to make remarkable discoveries and advancements that touch the lives of every American.  We are an Agency committed to “pioneering the future” as only NASA can. 

One of the greatest challenges before the Agency today is having the people – the human capital – available to forge ahead and make the future breakthroughs tomorrow’s everyday reality.  NASA’s history is celebrated worldwide for having accomplished the things that no one has ever done before.  None of those achievements happened by accident.  They were the result of  management innovation, revolutionary technologies and solid science and research.  These three pillars of NASA’s achievement were built by the men and women of NASA and without them, the history of achievement that we celebrate in aeronautics and space exploration never would have been possible.   History is made everyday at NASA; but to maintain our leadership position, a new generation must be forged to carry our Nation’s innovation and exploration forward.

Vision And Mission

When I assumed the leadership of NASA late last year, I wanted to ensure that this pathfinder Agency had the means and mission to support that pioneering spirit through the next several decades.  NASA has a vital role to play in today’s world and my testimony today will touch on the management challenges that NASA must overcome if we are to achieve our mission.   NASA is intent on continuing the gains made over 44 years while pushing the edge of the envelope of what appears today to be impossible.  We have developed a roadmap to continue our work in a more efficient, collaborative manner.  NASA’s imperative is not only for the sake of human knowledge – it is for our future and our security.

Soon after I came to NASA, we developed a new strategic framework and vision for the Agency.   It is a blueprint for the future of exploration and a roadmap for achievement that we hope will improve the lives of everyone in this country and everyone on thisplanet.   Our new vision is to improve life here, to extend life to there, and to find life beyond.  This vision frames all that we do and how we do it.  NASA will do this by implementing our mission – to understand and protect our home planet; to explore the Universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers…as only NASA can.

To understand and protect our home planet, NASA will work to develop and employ the technologies that will make our Nation and society a better place.  We will work to forecast the impact of storms on one continent upon the crop production on another; we will work to trace and predict the patterns of mosquito-borne diseases, and study climate, geography and the environment – all in an effort to understand the multiple systems of our planet and our impact upon it. 

Our mission’s second theme is to explore the universe and search for life.  NASA will seek to develop the advanced technologies, robotics, and science that eventually will enable us to explore and seek firsthand the answers and the science behind our most fundamental inquiries.  If we are to achieve such ambitious objectives, there is much we still must learn and many technical challenges that must be conquered.   

For example, today’s rockets that have been the engine of exploration since the inception of space travel are today at the limit of what they can deliver.  Our current budget before the Congress invests nearly $1 billion over five years for a nuclear systems initiative as a first step in addressing this challenge.  Propulsion is only one of the challenges facing further human exploration of space.  The physical challenges incurred by our space explorers also must be better defined.  We still do not know or understand the long-term effects of radiation and exposure to a microgravity environment upon the human body. The infant steps we have taken via the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station have given us many answers to explore, but they have yielded even more questions for us to consider.

Our third mission objective is to inspire the next generation of explorers. America often looks to NASA to help our Nation build an unequalled pool of scientific and technical talent. NASA accepts that responsibility and in partnership with the US Department of Education, other federal agencies, and industry and educational partners, we will work to motivate our Nation’s youth to embrace the study of mathematics, science and engineering disciplines. Without the scholars to take the study of these disciplines to their next level, the missions we seek to lead remain bound to the launch pad. As the US Department of Labor has reported, the opportunities in the technology sector are expected to quadruple in this decade. Unfortunately, the pool of college students enrolled in mathematics, science and engineering courses continues to decline. NASA faces similar challenges with having the scientific and engineering workforce necessary to fulfill its missions.

Our mission statement concludes with the statement, “as only NASA can.”  Our Agency is one of the Nation’s leading research and technology Federal agencies. We possess some of our Nation’s most unique tools, capabilities and expertise and represent a National asset and investment that is unparalleled in the world. Nonetheless, to achieve success in our mission, our activities must focus on those areas where NASA can make unique contributions. To make the best use of our workforce and other resources, we must also leverage the unique contributions of our partners in academia, industry, and other federal agencies.

Our commitment to the American taxpayer is to continue providing a direct and very tangible means of improving life on ourplanet. Extending life beyond the reaches of our Earth is not a process driven by any particular destination. Rather it is driven by science that will contribute to the social, economic, and intellectual growth of our society and the people who make that science possible are our greatest asset.

Workforce Challenges

NASA’s ability to fulfill its ambitious mission is dependent on the quality of its workforce. An Agency is only as strong as its people. To be successful, they need to be world-class if they are to be expected to break new ground in science and technology, explore the universe, or pioneer exciting discoveries here on Earth and beyond. NASA needs the best and the brightest. This means that NASA needs, not only the scientists and engineers who form the core of our workforce, but also highly competent professionals who can support NASA’s technical programs, and address the Agency’s financial, human capital, acquisition, and business management challenges.

Today, NASA faces an increasing management challenge in attracting, hiring, and retaining the talented men and women who, inspired by our amazing discoveries and innovations of the past 4 decades, will help mold the future of our Nation’s aeronautics and space programs. As a Nation, we must ensure that the Agency continues to have the scientific and technical expertise necessary to preserve our role as the world’s leader in aeronautics, space and Earth science, and emerging technology research. The President already has indicated his commitment to the strategic management of human capital in the Federal workforce, by making this issue number one in his Management Agenda. In fact, the President’s Management Agenda specifically references the human capital challenge that NASA faces and related skill imbalances. The President’s recognition of the challenge NASA faces is shared by the General Accounting Office, which has placed the management of human capital as one of the items on the government-wide “high-risk list.”

At NASA, we are ready to do our part to make sure that we have the best people for the job at hand, and to do that we need to manage this resource efficiently and responsibly, as well as compete favorably in a very competitive market place. We have developed a Strategic Human Capital Plan to establish a systematic, Agency-wide approach to human capital management, aligned with our vision and mission. The Plan assesses NASA’s current state with respect to human capital management, then goes on to identify goals, problems, improvement initiatives, and intended outcomes. The plan is an integrated approach to address the concerns of the Administration as well as our internal human capital needs.

NASA’s ability to implement its mission in science, technology, and exploration depends on our ability to reconfigure and reconstitute a world-class workforce. The human capital flexibilities that we are requesting, consistent with the Administration’s Managerial Flexibility Act,  will help us shape the workforce necessary to implement our mission today and in the future. We currently face many skill mix imbalances that impede our ability and it will be even more challenging in the future if we fail to act now.


The Committee’s letter of invitation requested that NASA address Shuttle competitive sourcing, workforce adjustments to the Space Station program and the Strategic Resources Review (SRR). There are a number of reviews which are ongoing that are addressing each of these issues.   At the present time, no decisions have been made, nor will be until the studies are complete. The human capital legislative provisions NASA is requesting are based on the Agency’s need to rebalance the skill mix of our workforce and to enable us to attract and retain a world class workforce for the future. Regardless of the outcome of the studies, we need legislatives measures now to address current workforce skills issues.

Today, NASA’s ability to maintain a workforce with the talent it needs to perform cutting-edge work is threatened by several converging trends. Each trend in isolation is concerning; in concert the indicators are alarming. We need to address these trends now by anticipating and mitigating their impact on NASA’s workforce in the near-term and beyond. These indicators could lead to a severe workforce crisis if we do not take prompt action. The warning signs are here, and we are paying attention.   Many of our planned actions to deal with threats to our human capital are possible without the aid of Congress; but some of the solutions require legislation. We are proposing a number of human capital provisions, which I believe are crucial steps toward averting a workforce crisis.

The trends I’d like to discuss with you today fall into 2 broad categories. First, there are trends that affect the nationwide labor market, and the applicant pool from which we draw our workers. These indicators affect other employers, not just NASA, and point to worsening employee pipeline issues in the future. Secondly, I would like to address a number of NASA-specificdemographics. Coupled with the nationwide issues we face, the NASA picture shows us that we need to take action and take it now.

Nationwide Trends


The Shrinking Scientist and Engineer (S&E) Pipeline

There is growing evidence that the pipeline for tomorrow’s scientists and engineers is shrinking. We are facing a critical shortage of students pursuing degrees in disciplines of critical importance to NASA– science, mathematics, and engineering. Several recent National Science Foundation reports document a disturbing trend: the science and engineering (S&E) pipeline has been shrinking over the past decade. This trend begins at the undergraduate level and extends through the ranks of doctoral candidates.   Here are some statistics that illustrate what currently is happening to the S&E pipeline:

  • Undergraduate Engineering Enrollment — The number of students enrolling in undergraduate engineering decreased by more than 20% between 1983 and 1999. [National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators-2002, Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2002 (NSB-02-01)]

    Undergraduate Engineering Enrollment Trend

  • Graduate S&E Enrollment — Engineering graduate enrollment also declined from a high in 1992 of 128,854 to 105,006 in 1999. Graduate enrollment in the physical sciences, earth sciences, and mathematics also showed a downturn between 1993 and 2000. [National Science Foundation Data Brief, Growth Continued in 2000 in Graduate Enrolment in Science and Engineering Fields (NSF-02-306), December 21, 2001)]
  • Post-Graduate S&E Enrollment — By the year 2000, the number of doctorates awarded annually in engineering had declined by 15% from its mid-decade peak;  since 1994, the number of doctorates in physics declined by 22%. Even in mathematics and computer science – where job opportunities are on the rise – the number of doctorates awarded declined in 1999 and 2000. [National Science Foundation, Info Brief Declines in U.S. Doctorate Awards in Physics and Engineering (NSF-02-316), April 2002]

  • Foreign S&E Enrollment — 40% of the graduate students in America’s engineering, mathematics, and computer science programs are foreign nationals. In the natural sciences, the number of non-citizens is nearly 1 in 4. When we concentrate on engineering graduate students who are U.S. citizens, the number of enrollees declined precipitously between 1993 and 1999:  from more than 77,000 to just over 60,000, a 23% drop in under a decade. [National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators-2002, Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2002 (NSB-02-01)

  • Aerospace Enrollment — Graduate enrollment in aerospace engineering has declined steadily in recent years – from 4,036 in 1992 to 3,407 in 2000, pointing to a diminishing interest in aerospace as a career. [National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators-2002, Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2002 (NSB-02-01) and National Science Foundation Data Brief, Growth Continued in 2000 in Graduate Enrolment in Science and Engineering Fields (NSF-02-306), December 21, 2001)]

    NASA is not alone in its search for enthusiastic and qualified employees. Throughout the Federal government, as well as the private sector, the challenge faced by a lack of scientists and engineers is real and is growing by the day.   The situation is summarized in the recently issued Hart-Rudman Commission’s Final Report, “The harsh fact is that the US need for the highest quality human capital in science, mathematics, and engineering is not being met.”

    The nationwide trends I have described have great significance to NASA since the Agency relies on a highly educated science and engineering workforce: nearly 60% of the total NASA workforce is S&E, and fully half of those employees have Masters or Doctorate degrees.


    Continued in Part 2

  • SpaceRef staff editor.