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Roundup Presents: The Directors Series (BA)


Noah J. Michelsohn |
April 21, 2019

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 business.”

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 operating.

(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 limited.”

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 beyond.


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.
Debra Johnson, JSC Director of the Office of Procurement.