- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

NASA has serious personnel problems. Twenty-five percent of its scientists and engineers will be eligible to retire in the next three to five years, and, as the agency’s workforce has been graying, few fresh-faced recruits have been coming through its doors. NASA needs to offer incentives to potential hires.

Scientists and engineers make up 60 percent of NASA’s employees, so there’s a great need to bring more in. However, universities are graduating fewer technicians than they used to, so there is a great deal of competition for them. While NASA cannot match the salaries in the private sector, it can offer a unique mission. As a consequence, a few additional incentives could be enough to tip skilled personnel into signing and staying at NASA — in spite of sub-standard compensation.

That is essentially what the NASA Workforce Flexibility Act (H.R. 1085 and S. 610) would do. The bills build on existing law to offer potential hires slightly better relocation benefits and slightly enhanced leave time. Those who intended to depart would be offered somewhat larger bonuses to stay.

The House version of the bill would allow NASA to undertake demonstration projects (such as changing the parameters of pay scales) with up to 8,000 of its employees. Federal law only allows for 5,000 employees to be so designated, and such a provision would normally set off a fierce fight with labor unions. That was avoided thanks to the intense negotiations between the bill’s sponsor, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, and representatives of NASA’s largest union, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE). The IFPTE endorsed the bill shortly before it was voted through the Science Committee this summer.

The Senate bill has bipartisan support, including the co-sponsorship of the only former astronaut in that chamber, Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat. The workforce bills had broad enough support to be carried through the committee process, and they are pending on the floors of their respective chambers.

Congress must pass the measures soon. At a meeting with reporters, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said he was “anxious for Congress to act” on anything along those lines, since NASA’s personnel crisis grows each day that the legislation is delayed. Although appropriations bills are filling legislative calendars, time is still taken to designate post offices (the Brian C. Hickey Post Office Building Designation Act passed the House this week). Surely, a few minutes can be taken to help NASA with its pressing workforce problems.

While NASA scientists still have the ability to shoot for the moon (and further), their purpose can only come from the president. This is where Mr. Bush must step up, preferably at his next State of the Union. We again urge President Bush to announce his long-range goals for the manned space program during that speech, which will happen near the one-year anniversary of the Columbia tragedy. NASA is not likely to have a problem recruiting extraordinary people when it once again takes on extraordinary missions.

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