“Getting It” at NASA

By Keith Cowing
October 1, 2003
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Over the years, one common complaint I have heard from Congress is the lack of responsiveness by NASA to questions regarding they way they do things. For me, the classic example of this tendency is when NASA’s Office of legislative Affairs took one year to make a response to a Congressional inquiry.

In the aftermath of the Columbia accident, I was astonished to see the deluge of materials released. At times the FOIA response mechanism seemed to be working at warp speed. Indeed, the process was often skipped altogether with a reporter’s request met within hours. The net result, while exposing lots of people at NASA to many, many questions, was that information was out in the hands of anyone who needed it.

Still, there are parts of the agency wherein the need to answer questions is not taken very seriously.

What follows below is standard NASA behavior. SOP in this regard is ‘ignore someone and they will go away. Don’t deal with the issue raised. And when the going gets tough, toss it to PAO.’ Alas, the natural response to not getting an answer – especially a simple one – is enough to make any staffer – or reporter – wonder if something is going on behind the scenes. In other words, not answering creates the potential for a larger story than simply answering. As you will see below, the answer, when I finally got it, is logical and defensible. It is the process of getting it that is worrisome.

On 11 September 2003, NASA released a Presolicitation Notice: “Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) System Management Program” which stated NASA’s intent to purchase services from MIT for one individual to attend a special program. To justify this sole source the Presolicitation Notice said “MIT is the only source that can provide the necessary training services because they possess an established system to facilitate dual masters program for engineering and business, and their affiliation with the Sloan and Harvard Business School.”

I posted this Presolicitation Notice on NASA Watch with an editor’s note: “MIT is the “only source” to provide this training? I don’t think so.”

Two points of contact are listed at the bottom of this notice. I sent a joint email to both of them asking “I have had input from NASA Watch readers listing programs at other institutions that offer identical programs. How (why) was this justification made that MIT is the only school – anywhere – that can provide NASA with this service?”. I did not get a reply after 4 days so I sent another request. After 4 days I still had not gotten a reply so I sent a third request.

Steve Lloyd, one of the two listed points of contact finally replied saying “As a member of the press, please contact Doc Mirelson, Chief of News and Information, NASA Headquarters, at doc.mirelson@nasa.gov concerning NASA’s procurement policies and procedures.”

I replied (with a cc: to Doc Mirelson): “I do not understand why you will not answer my question. I am also a taxpayer. I see no specification in this notice that media are to be treated different with respect to asking questions about this procurement notice. Indeed, I could have simply asked someone else not in the media to pose the question to you and then posted your response. Here is what the notice says at the bottom:

“Original Point of Contact Donna M Hardy, Contract Specialist, Phone (301) 286-3936, Fax (301) 286-0356, Email dhardy@pop200.gsfc.nasa.gov – Steve Lloyd, Procurement Manager, Phone (301) 286-4309, Fax (301) 286-0357, Email Steven.R.Lloyd.1@gsfc.nasa.gov Email your questions to Donna M Hardy at dhardy@pop200.gsfc.nasa.gov”

Where does it say that media are to contact NASA PAO? If indeed the media are to be treated differently with regard to queries then I suggest that all NASA procurement notices be modified accordingly such that this is made clear. Alas, I seriously doubt there is any basis upon which such a policy can be based.

Again, I have asked you a very simple question. Please provide me with an answer. Your continued inability and/or unwillingness to answer (I had to ask 3 times to get your attention) makes me wonder if there is a bigger issue at work here – hence a story worth pursuing.”

This email from me was the first wherein NASA PAO heard from me on this topic. Within an hour they were already on the case. Within a day they had something that the formal points of contact could not do after a week and a half – an answer:

“NASA, as well as all other federal agencies, is required by statute and regulation to make public notices of proposed contract actions, including academic training requirements for individuals, exceeding $25,000. To comply with this requirement, the posted notice stated NASA’s intent to award a purchase order to MIT to allow a single individual to enroll and participate in MIT’s dual master’s program, which has been tailored for NASA. Since the program was tailored for NASA, it was considered unique. This should have been stated in the synopsis. NASA did not receive any expressions of interest in this requirement from industry or the non-profit/university community, and after further consideration the solicitation was cancelled.”

In other words someone made a clerical mistake. No biggie. Yet the people involved apparently didn’t notice the mistake or did not want to admit it. That’s a problem. Curiously, the people formally listed as being the ones to answer questions did not. Yet NASA PAO stepped in and started to work on this issue right away and I had an answer returned to me very promptly.

This experience is why so many people who interact with NASA still have their suspicions. If people at NASA are not going to answer questions put to them by the public in response to a formal notice published in the public record – then they shouldn’t put their email address and phone number in the notice in the first place.

On the other hand, this incident also serves to demonstrate a marked and positive change in the way NASA PAO does things.

Folks in PAO seem to “get it” to borrow Sean O’Keefe’s phrase. Others still do not.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.