NASA’s procurement launchpad to the Moon and Mars

When the objective of an organisation is to reach Mars, then every facet of that organisation has to be functioning at the highest possible standard

With this in mind, the Office of Procurement at NASA has introduced a new tool to find fresh procurement ideas, encourage innovation and, ultimately, exceed the goals of the agency.

The tool is NASA Acquisition Innovation Launchpad (NAIL), which allows everyone from contractors, engineers and staff, to field and test ideas to improve the agency’s procurement processes. The aim is to allow people to identify improvements by challenging sub-optimal ways of operating. Through NAIL they can recommend tools to increase acquisition process quality or speed, or provide ideas to reduce the burden on industry, or barriers to entry.

NASA currently spends approximately $21 billion (85% of its budget) on acquiring goods and services. It plans to use NAIL to facilitate industry input through public focus groups.

A digital space for ideas and innovation 

NASA Senior Procurement Executive, Deputy Chief Acquisition Officer &Assistant Procurement Administrator Karla Smith Jackson has been a major force behind NAIL since joining three years ago..

“We were doing quite a few innovative things, but we had not established either a virtual or an actual physical space to be able to leverage innovations and acquisition,” she explains. 

“I wanted NASA to have a space around the acquisition of innovation, and we opted to call it a launchpad, hence the name

“I didn’t want this to be a headquarters-driven thing, I was really looking for just the opposite –, a grassroots way to collect information and innovations from the centres.”

Encouraging diversity and improving reach

A core aim of NAIL is to encourage diverse perspectives, reduce barriers and improve reach. By having a digital portal to allow the sharing of ideas, and a cultural atmosphere that encourages that sharing, it gives people the licence to step forward and contribute. 

Smith Jackson describes NAIL as a “‘dynamic catalyst for innovation”’ in both procurement and programme management, because it applies NASA’s culture of exploration and innovation to acquisitions and empowers its workforce to meet challenges and objectives.She adds: “What we have now is an electronic presence whereby if somebody has an innovation they want us to look into, they just click on it, fill out a form, submit it, and then we follow up. “We have around 70 projects that have been submitted, on which we're getting comments from individual employees who see things that can be done differently,”.

She adds that employees are encouraged to share ideas regardless of how experienced they are in the agency, “as this “allows new perspectives and ideas to get their moment in the spotlight”.

“I try to talk to everybody, not just the seasoned acquisition professionals because they think they have all the answers,” says  Smith Jackson. “People who are new to NASA are far more likely to question why we are doing thing a particular way" 

NAIL is born partly from Smith Jackson’s not-entirely-positive experiences from earlier in her career.

“I found myself wishing there was a way to constructively share ideas without criticising what is perceived to be the status quo,” she says, adding that ,this is something NAIL actively encourages.

NAIL also allows collaborative networking opportunities, for people of differing experience and backgrounds to explore and evolve ideas.

“It is a less threatening way for people to share ideas in a conversation space. This way, we can attack weak spots, and hopefully something that didn't work before will work successfully.”

NASA procurement success stories 

Since launching in early 2023, NAIL has already started to deliver results. A significant early achievement has been how it has brought clarity to the relationship between NASA’s technical and procurement teams. 

Smith Jackson explains that, previously, there were engineers and researchers whose dealings with procurement were rare, and who found it opaque and intimidating, without help or expertise.

NAIL, however, offers an Acquisition Navigator, which is a virtual space that answers procurement questions – everything from how to go about a solicitation or putting together a statement of work. 

Smith Jackson says: “Acquisition Navigator will show you what a good policy looks like, and give you a template. 

“It is micro-training, so people can access all this information without having to engage anyone. It is a living, breathing thing; we're constantly adding to it as policies change.”

Even though the project is still in relative infancy, Smith Jackson believes the strategy is making a difference to the way NASA works, and to the culture of innovation it is looking to promote. In a little over six months 50 industry partners have usedNAIL to promote ideas and share ways they can bring value to NASA.. 

NASA Mars 2040

In terms of NASA’s wider operational goals, it aims to return to the Moon by 2025, and then to reach Mars by 2040. This means all departments need to work together and at their optimum level to make this a reality. 

Smith Jackson says issues such as slow procurement processes hold up progress, and that anything that accelerates these will help in NASA@s wider mission goals. 

“You'll see over the next six to 12 months, there's going to be a huge rollout talking about NASA 2040,“ she explains, knowing that every department needs to be at the top of their game if they are to reach the 2040 goal. 

“When I came up with this, I didn't realise there were others in the agency thinking of similar things,” she says. “I feel that in a year or so it will converge in NASA’s different areas of expertise, be it science, engineering, or research. We will see a different NASA. NASA 2040 starts now.”

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