WASHINGTON -- NASA's administrator is urging Congress to allow the space agency to change the ways it recruits and retains its brightest scientests and engineers.
Administrator Sean O'Keefe warns that NASA faces dangerous shortages because of looming retirements and fewer college graduates with skills it needs.
O'Keefe described the situation as "alarming" in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing Thursday, and said the agency's specialized employment requirements were destined for crisis unless lawmakers approved changes.
O'Keefe said the situation was especially poignant, given questions about NASA's future after the Columbia accident. The agency has been lobbying for these changes for more than a year. It employs about 19,000 people worldwide.
"We need to address these trends now by anticipating and mitigating their impact on NASA's workforce in the near-term and beyond," O'Keefe said in his testimony. "These indicators could lead to a severe workforce crisis if we do not take prompt action."
Among other changes, O'Keefe endorsed better hiring and retention bonuses - beyond 25 percent of an engineer's base salary - and increases in the agency's top wages from $134,000 to $142,000, including adjustments to the salaries of NASA's most senior executives.
"We lost some individuals with skills we couldn't afford to lose" during the past decade, O'Keefe wrote, "and now these skills need to be replaced. Through downsizing and the normal attrition process, we lost key areas of our institutional knowledge base."
Although O'Keefe made only passing reference to the Columbia accident in his prepared statement, he said the shuttle program and work on the International Space Station were vital to understand long-term effects of radiation and low gravity on humans.
O'Keefe said continuing those programs - which he said were particularly hard hit by a lack of skilled workers - is important for what he described as NASA's new vision to "improve life here, to extend life to there and to find life beyond."
O'Keefe's appearance before the Senate Governmental Affairs management subcommittee was set to get under way just hours ahead of the first in a series of public hearings in Houston by the board investigating the Feb. 1 shuttle accident.
Among those expected to testify Thursday in Houston were an engineer whose team of experts found flaws in the safety and operations of the shuttle program, plus shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, who conducted the daily public briefings in the days after the disaster.