Crunch time at Moffett
As budget tightens, NASA sees tensions rise with employees, Army tenants
NASA Ames was nearly shut down two years ago, but is now poised for major growth, according to a presentation made last month by Director Pete Worden to NASA Ames employees.
Worden's "All hands on deck" presentation, obtained by the Voice, indicates NASA is about to make radical changes in how it does business, including efforts to attract major new projects, improve employee trust of management, implement cost-cutting measures and continue to celebrate and encourage private partnerships as it builds its massive research park at Moffett Field.
When Worden arrived two years ago, he found a slashed budget at Ames. Its astrobiology institute, which plays a key research role nationwide, had been cut in half. Aeronautics programs at the Ames wind tunnel had also become unpopular.
"We were a research center when NASA wanted to end research," Worden said in his presentation. "Ames was tangential to the agency's goals. We could have easily been closed."
Since then the research programs have made significant turnarounds, but still NASA Ames' budget is expected to be cut from $793 million for 2007 to $624 million for 2009.
"Our projected institutional support budget" — which is determined by NASA headquarters — "is inadequate to meet the current way we do business," Worden said.
To strengthen its position among NASA's 10 centers across the country, Ames hopes to attract new projects and become NASA's leader in small spacecraft missions, intelligent robotics, information technology and biotechnology.
The ambitious plans require a committed workforce, and a recent national survey showed that while NASA employees are some of the most satisfied federal employees, those at NASA Ames are some of the least satisfied in the country.
"Ames is near the bottom," Worden said, mentioning a lack of trust by employees of NASA leadership "at all levels." "We will fix this, we will completely turn it around," he said, with a "new culture" that is "inclusive, transparent, trusting, trustworthy, meritocratic, empowering and meaningful."
Worden added that "every problem is an opportunity in disguise."
An anonymous employee at NASA Ames talked to the Voice about the presentation. "I think the agency has a tendency to present the situation as being more optimistic than it actually is," the employee said. "A lot of the employees are very unhappy. They don't like the way the situation is being managed."
Tensions between NASA, Army
Besides its competition for funding from NASA headquarters, Ames also faces possible land use conflicts with the Army, the next-largest user of Moffett Field.
In its effort to open up Moffett to college students and private employees at its planned research park, NASA wants the checkpoints at the outer main gates to go away, despite wishes to the contrary from the Army.
"We are seriously thinking about reducing and altering the nature of the security at the outer set of gates," said Steve Zornetzer of NASA Ames. "We want much less restriction to the NASA Research Park."
The research park would build office and research facilities on Moffett Field, bringing together universities and high-tech companies and hopefully leading to a cross-pollenization of ideas.
But for the Army, which houses soldiers and leases buildings in Moffett Field, that plan is hard to accept.
"I would say any facility with a military presence would want to make sure there is a security presence for the families and soldiers that reside there," said Daniel Vargas, chief of staff of Army reserves at Moffett.
A longtime Army officer stationed at Moffett, who asked that his name be withheld, said that after Sept. 11, 2001 the Army was able to impose intensified security at the gate despite NASA's wishes. And now, the Army's contingent there is set to grow at Moffett more than most people realize.
"Army manpower and equipment presence will supersede the presence of NASA," he told the Voice. "A lot of people" say this will happen "by 2010 or 2012," he said.
The Army is planning to move units from all over the state into a major training facility at Moffett's Orion Park, creating a command center, combat support hospital unit and reserve center at Moffett by 2012. The Voice was unable to confirm exactly how many new full time soldiers would be based at Moffett, but most estimates hover around 500, with 700 reservists visiting every weekend.
The Army already has several units at Moffett, including legal services, civil affairs and psychological operations units. There is also the 129th Air National Guard Unit that uses the airfield. The Coast Guard and the Marine Corp also use Moffett for training.
In comparison, NASA has 1,300 employees and 1,200 contractors, but their buildings take up a good deal more space than the Army's.
With NASA currently struggling to pay for Moffett's limited airfield operations, the Army source believes Congress may have to hand the runway, and possibly much of NASA's property, back to the military, even though the Army's aeronautical interest is mostly helicopters.
"I don't think the Army wants to take over the burden of the airfield," he said. "But they would if they had to. What I see from the inside out is that NASA is not an organization built to manage facilities."
Lewis Braxton, director of center operations for NASA Ames, said that if the Army wanted to control the airfield, "We would welcome it."
NASA's ambitious development plans, some of which have been in the works for over 10 years, may never get off the ground, the Army officer said. Inevitably, "Congress is going to look at what's easiest and what's best. The Army is clearly the best tenant for the job."
In response to these statements, NASA's Zornetzer gave this assessment: "Frankly we're not a military base. We host a number of military contingents. They are here as our tenants. This will not revert back to a military base unless there is a crisis."
E-mail Daniel DeBolt at email@example.com