Open for Business
Debra Johnson got her first taste of business at
an early age, helping her parents run a chain of corner stores in east Houston.
“I would sit at the dinner table and watch them discuss
the daily finances,” Johnson said. “They would order supplies and interact with
customers, and I found it all so interesting. I always knew I wanted to be in
She turned that passion into an internship, working
on contracts and purchasing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center at the age of 17. She
eventually worked her way to the top, now serving as the director of Johnson’s
Office of Procurement. Since becoming director, Johnson has transformed the
center’s business model by challenging the status quo and exploring new ways of
(Johnson was honored alongside JSC Deputy Center Director Vanessa Wyche, IRD Director Annette Moore and Chief of the Spaceflight Operations Resources Office Donna Blackshear-Reynolds by the Houston Alumna Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. for their contributions to NASA and STEM in Houston. Credit: Defender Network.)
As NASA prepares to make a sustainable return to
the Moon, increasing efficiency and maximizing resources is more important than
ever. In order to achieve these daring new missions, Johnson has challenged her
team to streamline the procurement process, resulting in increased competition,
lower costs and more room for innovation.
“I tell my team that your job description may
say contract specialist, but we’re dealmakers,’” Johnson said. “Utilizing purchase
orders, agreements, barters and contracting, we can make any deal the agency
needs to get us back to the Moon and on to Mars.”
To put astronauts on the Moon in 2024, NASA
needs to expedite the process of acquiring goods and services and building
partnerships with commercial companies. This led to centralizing procurement at
the agency level, allowing the same contract to be used across the agency and
resulting in resource savings and a faster tempo for projects such as Gateway
and Commercial Lunar Payload Service contracts.
“We are trying to reduce the amount of paperwork
and number of requirements so we can function like commercial companies,”
Johnson said. “If we expedite our current processes, we can use that extra time
to negotiate new contracts that will get us to the Moon.”
While speed is vital, Johnson also recognized
the need to work with new companies that can adapt quickly as new details
emerge about Gateway, commercial lunar programs and NASA’s Moon to Mars Directorate.
“The most agile companies are often the smaller
companies,” Johnson said. “But when a small company has few products and
services and even few employees, the time available to market the company is
As the daughter of small business owners,
Johnson understood the unique challenges that small businesses face and has
made it a priority throughout her career to open the doors for small business
owners at NASA, and then serve as a mentor to help them grow.
This passion carried over from the professional
world and led her to get involved with her community, working with a team of
volunteers to start science fairs at low-income elementary schools.
(Johnson volunteers with other Johnson employees at a Houston elementary school.)
“Mentoring employees, students and small
businesses uses the same principle, only applied to different end functions,”
Johnson said. “Some of the most rewarding moments have been watching small
businesses grow into large companies, students getting excited about STEM and
employees growing into leaders. Sometimes it takes a lot of attention, but I
enjoy watching the developmental process unfold.”
Growing these small businesses into enterprises
that can serve many NASA centers may take some time, but it is laying the
groundwork for more competition, which will result in lower costs and a booming
commercial space economy.
“The future of spaceflight is going to rely on our
partnerships,” Johnson said. “When we create room for industry to get involved
and grow, everyone wins.”
The Office of Procurement is fostering a
stronger space economy and setting an example of the role that Johnson will
maintain as the leader in human spaceflight in the rapidly evolving landscape
of space. As more details emerge about sustainable missions to the Moon, this
daring new approach to procurement will enable NASA success in 2024 … and
Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center
Debra Johnson is
director of NASA Johnson Space Center’s Office of Procurement. This story is
part two of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare.
Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find previous stories on the directors website.
Debra Johnson, JSC Director of the Office of Procurement.