How NASA Works

NASA's Infrastructure

When you think of NASA, most people think of the astronauts, but there's a lot more to the organization. To accomplish NASA's basic mission, they need people to develop and build new technologies, assemble and test spacecraft and their components, train astronauts/pilots and provide mission support services. With each task, there are workers to employ and pay, contractors to hire and supplies to purchase. NASA requires an enormous work force (over 18,000 employees and 40,000 contractors) and a large budget ($17.3 billion estimated for fiscal year 2008). NASA must have an infrastructure to deliver goods and services and account for the money spent.

NASA's organizational structure
Image courtesy NASA

NASA's organizational structure has changed over the decades to make the administration more efficient and to adapt to changes in its direction/priorities in the post-Apollo era. NASA's current organizational structure reflects a strategic plan formulated in 2006 to carry out the goals set forth in President George W. Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration). NASA has four main offices, or directorates, through which it works to accomplish its goals:

  • Aeronautics Research - conduct research and development for safe, reliable flight vehicles and aviation systems
  • Exploration Systems - develop technologies to support human and robotic exploration of space
  • Science - explore Earth, sun, solar system and universe through missions that are proposed by principal investigators (scientists) within both NASA and academia
  • Space Operations - direct launches, operations and communications for all spacecraft both in Earth orbit and beyond

The mission directorates are located in NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and form the core of NASA's efforts. Each office coordinates activities within various NASA centers across the country to achieve its responsibilities.

Work for NASA
NASA needs all types of workers -- scientists, engineers, accountants, writers and maintenance workers. If you would like to apply for a job at NASA, consult the NASAJobs Web site. Here, you can post your resume, search jobs and review job openings at NASA Headquarters or any of the NASA Centers. NASA also has summer employment, internships and cooperative programs.

Mission Planning
Mission planning happens in 3 phases: Preflight, Flight and Extended Operations.

  • Preflight - Someone (scientists in NASA or external) proposes a mission to answer a scientific question. If NASA accepts the proposal, they assign a Scientific Working Group at a NASA Center to determine the mission goals, spacecraft designs, trajectories, launch vehicles and costs. If the project continues, NASA assigns scientists at various centers to build and test the spacecraft (usually with the help of contractors) and work on other aspects of the mission.
  • Flight - KSC launches the mission and hands it off to one of the NASA centers. The Deep Space Network receives data for the spacecraft in flight. When the spacecraft "encounters" its destination, scientific experiments are carried out and data transmitted to Earth. They send the information to various scientific teams that analyze the data and publish the findings.
  • Extended Operations - Spacecraft continues to send back data until it no longer works. In some cases, it may be possible to redirect it for a secondary objective. Human missions and some sample return missions come back to Earth.

For more details on mission planning, see Basics of Space Flight, Section II, Chapter 7 Mission Inception. Next, we'll look at NASA's Mission Support.

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