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NASA’s Mentoring Program Can Benefit Defense (UPDATED)
Since 1958, NASA has been at the forefront of exploration. Its achievements in science and engineering helped America win the Cold War and provide the foundation of today’s connected society. Today, its mentor-protégé program is showing similar innovation.
The program’s intent is to “incentivize NASA prime contractors to assist small, disadvantaged business concerns, historically Black colleges and universities, minority institutions, and women-owned small business.”
Last year, the Boeing Co., a major NASA prime contractor, and Southern University and A&M College at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, signed an 18-month mentor-protégé partnership to work together on NASA’s Space Launch System. Boeing is one of the largest primes to participate in NASA’s mentor-protégé program.
“Ask professionals across trade industries about the benefits of allying veteran, large companies with energetic startups, and they’re likely to praise the marriage of proven business acumen, fresh perspectives and bleeding-edge technological capabilities,” says Lee Mohon, formerly of ASRC Federal, an aerospace and defense company. According to NASA, it is the only federal agency with a mentor-protégé program targeted at historically Black colleges and universities.
These partnerships aim to solve some of America’s most significant national security issues.
“America is at a crossroads,” said retired Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association.
“The industrial base is facing multiple headwinds,” he noted. “Skilled, cleared workforce shortages remain a challenge,” and “increased regulatory burdens and barriers to new entrants continues to be a barrier,” he said.
The supply chain is one example of a security concern since some niche components needed for space flight are no longer manufactured domestically. This is especially concerning in the new age of great power competition, where supply chains are becoming an emerging area of concern.
Ellen Lord, the former undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said the “silver lining” of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it encouraged U.S. businesses to bring their supply chains back to the United States. Many of America’s supply chain vulnerabilities are due to its dependence on foreign nations — China in particular. The pandemic highlighted just how much even something like the spread of a virus touches the defense industry.
The Pentagon’s industrial policy office suggested in the “2020 Industrial Capabilities Report” that qualifying new suppliers and investing in new technology to acquire domestic sources is a national priority. However, a possible model for the solution has already presented itself — mentor-protégé programs — which in addition to NASA, is also a tool for the Defense Department.
For some, NASA seemingly has nothing to do with national security. However, one cannot fully understand the story of the development of the Space Shuttle until “the national defense context in which it was conceived, developed and initially deployed” is considered, wrote the editors of Wings in Orbit: Scientific and Engineering Legacies of the Space Shuttle.
Southern University and NASA have enjoyed a long relationship and show just how initiatives like the mentor-protégé program can and have helped push the United States forward. Morgan Watson — a Southern University engineering faculty member and a former NASA engineer — is proof of that. After graduating in 1964, Watson helped integrate the Marshall Space Flight Center. He went on to become a part of the mission that sent the first man to the Moon.
Patrick Mensah, associate dean of research and graduate programs in Southern University’s College of Sciences and Engineering, said it was opportunities like this that led to Southern being the first historically Black college or university to enter into an agreement with Boeing as a member of NASA’s mentor-protégé program.
While national security is not the primary focus of NASA’s mentor-protégé program or Boeing’s agreement with Southern University, the ramifications of making such programs a part of national security can be far-reaching.
By exposing smaller institutions and businesses, accompanied by the motivated people molded and produced by them, to opportunities like the ones provided by the mentorship program, U.S. national security acquisition programs could be both revolutionized and revitalized tapping into all our talent pools and domestic resources.
NASA-sponsored mentor-protégé partnerships between entities such as Boeing and Southern University could be one solution to sourcing and mobilizing the workforce needed to develop the next generation of hardware, software and services required by the U.S. military.
They could also provide an opportunity to wean the United States from its dependence on international supply chains — strengthening national security while boosting support for small businesses and the American workforce.
Shaliza Tolliver is a junior fellow at NDIA.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Lee Mohon was an employee of ASRC Federal. This article has been updated to reflect that Mohon is no longer with the company.