NASA’s Technology Capabilities Assessment Team is finding new acceptance of the agency’s need to improve efficiency by eliminating duplication across its scattered field centers, with some center directors actually willing to give up assets if they can use the savings to fund their core competencies.

Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot declined to list specifics in a year-end assessment of NASA’s health before a Washington audience assembled by the Space Transportation Association (STA). But he reported that new realities seem to be driving center directors away from organizational stovepipes and toward a more collaborative view.

“In this virtual world we have boundaries that are sometimes false; they’re geographically based,” Lightfoot said. “We can only do this because we do it here. In this world we can’t survive like that. We’ve got smart people all over the agency, and we need to take advantage of what they can bring to help us solve the problems that we’re trying to solve.”

Lightfoot, the former director of Marshall Space Flight Center, tapped Langley Research Center Director Lisa Roe for a detail at agency headquarters to head up the capabilities assessment team. Initiated in July 2012, the assessment ultimately will drive NASA strategic planning and influence major investments. With funding tight, the team is finding it relatively easy to match capabilities and field centers.

“The hard part is in the implementation; how we inject that into the budget process,” Lightfoot told the STA group, which met in a congressional office building. “Right now we’re trying to do this outside the budget process.”

Although agency centers have been likened to feudal fiefdoms, Lightfoot — the highest ranking civil servant at NASA — said top management has recognized the value in breaking up organizational turf and even allowing outside participants. In keeping with the agency’s shift to commercial providers for spaceflight operations traditionally kept in-house, Lightfoot included industry in the mix.

“I can’t invest in everything,” he said. “There are some places where industry does things better than we do, and we need to just confess it; industry does it better. But there are other things that we do, and frankly, there’s no business case for it.”

Entry, descent and landing technology of the sort that lowered the 1-ton Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars is an example of a capability NASA needs to nurture, he said, while the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) seed-money program that backed development of two different commercial cargo vehicles for resupplying the International Space Station shows industry’s potential role.

“COTS has offered us some really interesting insight into that,” he said, noting that lessons learned from the program are finding their way into commercial crew development and other initiatives. “It is a different model, and it requires us to think differently from a cultural perspective.”

Lightfoot stressed that NASA’s “culture” is based on more than 50 years of lessons, some of them hard won and not to be discarded lightly.

“We do have lessons learned, and we’re incorporating them into different ways of thinking about how we can do not only commercial crew, but other areas as well,” he said. “It’s a cultural shift for us, because a lot of our acquisition process and a lot of the way we do things is built on scar tissue … you can ignore the scar tissue, but you’ve got to understand if the environment is different.”