NASA is changing the way it is doing business, spending less on traditional contracts and partnering more with the private sector and local governments to further the growth of the commercial space industry.
That transition promises to be a prime preoccupation for the agency’s new top lawyer, Sumara Thompson-King.
Thompson-King became NASA’s general counsel on June 1, replacing Michael Wholley, who held the post since 2004. She is the first woman and the first African American to lead the agency’s legal department, which has about 175 attorneys. She joined NASA’s legal team in 1986 at Goddard Space Flight Center and moved to the agency’s headquarters in 1991 as a senior attorney, litigating disputes over contracts. She rose to associate general counsel of contracts procurement, and later, deputy general counsel.
Thompson-King — her first name is pronounced “sue-MARE-ah, a combination of the names of her great-great grandmother, Sudy, and her great-grandmother, Mary — talked about the agency’s transition last week at the American Bar Association’s Space Law Forum at Jones Day in the District, her first speaking engagement since assuming the general counsel role.
In 1993, she said, NASA spent about 90 percent of its funding on contracts — buying goods and services from contractors to carry out NASA programs — but by 2006 that portion had fallen to 87 percent, and in 2012, it was down to about 80 percent, according to government reports. Today, the agency spends an increasing portion of its resources on collaborating with the commercial space industry and other government agencies, and Thompson-King says those relationships will grow.
“While most of our funding is used for carrying out NASA programs, you see that is going down,” Thompson-King told those gathered at the forum. “We’re spending that money on different types of things, not just contracts.”
Those other avenues include partnering with companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to spur development in the private sector. The agency’s funding efforts to support the commercial space industry began in 2006, when it entered into commercial orbital transportation agreements with those two companies to send cargo to the International Space Station. NASA is seeking a partner in the private sector to help transport crew members to the space station.
NASA is also working with Space Florida, the aerospace economic and development agency that was created by the Florida state legislature to explore ways the private sector could use Kennedy Space Center now that NASA no longer uses the shuttle landing facility there. (The last flight was the Atlantis, in 2011). SpaceX and Boeing have both won approval to use equipment and space at the center.
Space Florida “has been working and talking with us to manage the shuttle landing facility because they want to create a multi-user spaceport facility in that area,” she said. “There is a commercial industry, we all know it’s growing, so the state of Florida wants to encourage that industry. We are now engaged in more conversations and agreements with state and local governments to further commercial space activities.”
NASA’s budget is about 0.5 percent of the U.S. budget, with the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal asking for $17.5 billion for the agency.
Thompson-King said the agency is excited about its goal to send humans to Mars, an undertaking that will require developing new technology including solar electric propulsion, which the agency has commissioned contractors to study.
“These are really interesting times for us,” she said. “We’re doing a lot, and we’re doing things differently.”
The agency is not permitted to formally lobby Congress, but it does regularly meet with members of Congress and their staff to educate them on how the agency works, Thompson-King said.
“We recognize we have 435 [House] members who may not really understand what exactly NASA does,” she said. “We’re spending a lot of time within the agency to educate Congress, to provide technical assistance and give them information about our program so they better understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, so when they vote for funding on the programs, they have a better understanding of what we do.”