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NASA sets due date for $20B IT contract

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NASA has extended the deadline for bids on its $20 billion Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement (SEWP) V contract, following last month’s government shutdown.

The agency has extended the due date to Nov. 15, according to an online notice. Originally, companies had until Oct. 14 to bid.

NASA said the 16-day shutdown delayed its response to industry’s questions as well as changes to the solicitation.

The contract will provide agencies with desktops, laptops, servers and other information technology equipment.

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SILVER SCREEN FEDS: ‘Apollo 13,’ ‘The Simpsons Movie’

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Russ Cargill oh-so-helpfully nudges President Schwarzenegger to pick the right plan. (from The Simpsons Movie, 20th Century Fox)

Today on Silver Screen Feds, Andy Medici takes a look at the best team of federal employees ever to grace the big screen: Mission control from “Apollo 13.” And keep reading for Stephen Losey’s take on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Russ Cargill, from “The Simpsons Movie” — the first character we’ve profiled who descends into outright super-villainy.

BEST FEDS: Mission Control, NASA, “Apollo 13″ (Andy Medici)

Most of the time, being a good federal employee requires working well as a team. Being able to finish projects on tight deadlines while dealing with multiple other priorities is a staple of any fed’s tenure in government.

And in this case, there may be no better federal team in cinema than NASA’s mission control from “Apollo 13.” The 1995 film — directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and lots of other people everyone recognizes — follows the journey of the Apollo 13 astronauts as they attempt to reach Earth safely after a disaster onboard the ship renders it nearly useless.

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NASA to start market research for SEWP V

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NASA will take tips on how to form the next iteration of its governmentwide IT contract this summer, agency officials announced today.

NASA’s Solutions for Enterprise Wide Procurement (SEWP) program office will hold 45-minute one-on-one interviews the weeks of July 9 and July 23 to get insight from contractors and interested parties on current and upcoming IT products and trends that will help build SEWP V, according to a news release posted on the SEWP website.

Sixty interview spots are available on first-come basis at https://www.sewp.nasa.gov/registration. The registration is also open to anyone who wants to receive updates on SEWP V.

SEWP V, like its predecessors, will be a governmentwide acquisiton contract, or GWAC. GWACs are available to any federal agency for information technology products and services, including computers and servers, network equipment, storage devices and software. Pre-approved vendors are eligible to compete for task orders placed by customer agencies under those contracts.

Agencies spent $2.3 billion through SEWP IV in 2011, according to the program office.

Forty-two vendors were awarded contracts on SEWP IV in 2007 and 2008. The competed SEWP IV contracts expire in 2014 and have a $5.6 billion ceiling. Four 8(a) non-competed contracts expire next year and are limited to between $3.5 million and $4 million.

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Agencies need better contract planning, GAO says

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Poor acquisition planning on service contracts has led to late contract awards, cost overruns and insufficient services at four federal agencies, an Aug. 9 Government Accountability Office report  shows.

Federal regulations require agencies to go through a detailed planning process for all acquisitions so that well-defined requirements, realistic cost estimates and lessons learned from past procurements are  in place before an agency seeks proposals from vendors. 

Looking at the four agencies with the highest obligations on professional, administrative, and management support services — the Health and Human Services Department, Department of Homeland Security, NASA and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) — the GAO found that while all but the USAID currently require written acquisition plans, contracting officers did not always use the acquisition planning process to develop a strong foundation for the acquisitions the GAO reviewed.

Also, agencies have not clearly defined how long acquisition planning should take, so program officials may not know when to start planning, the report said. 

The GAO has asked all agencies to direct their procurement offices to send out guidance on the use of the planning process, specify what should be included in planning documents, and establish timeframes by which contracting officials should begin planning.

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NASA CTO resigns

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After a five-year stint at NASA, Chris Kemp is stepping down as the space agency’s chief technology officer.

In a blog post Monday, Kemp said “deciding to leave NASA has not been easy, and is something I’ve been struggling with for the past few months.”

About a month ago, I mentioned to one of my mentors that “it’s a very difficult time to be an entrepreneur at NASA.”  She responded “is it ever a good time to be an entrepreneur at NASA?” Reflecting on this, I realized that most of my accomplishments at NASA were not at Headquarters, but out in the field where I could roll up my sleeves and work on projects and get stuff done.  Whereas I thought I had the best of both worlds being a Headquarters employee stationed in Silicon Valley, I actually had the worst of both worlds… no influence when I can’t be in all of those meetings at NASA HQ, with no mandate to manage projects at Ames. As budgets kept getting cut and continuing resolutions from Congress continued to make funding unavailable, I saw my vision for the future slowly slip further from my grasp. 

Kemp reflected on his years at NASA but didn’t give specifics on his next adventure.

So, today, I am announcing that I am leaving the place I dreamed of working as a kid to find a garage in Palo Alto to do what I love.

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NASA’s big announcement: Possible ‘second genesis’ of life

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The Washington Post has an advance peek at the big announcement NASA has scheduled for later today. It’s not aliens, but it is pretty interesting nonetheless — researchers have found a bacterium that relies on arsenic, not phosphorus, as one of its six essential components.

The Post said this doesn’t prove that some forms of life on Earth evolved from a different common ancestor than the rest of us — the so-called “second genesis.” “But the discovery very much opens the door to that possibility, and to the related existence of a theorized ‘shadow biosphere’ on earth.”

The Mono Lake discovery highlights one of the central challenges of astrobiology — knowing what to look for in terms of extraterrestrial life. While it remains uncertain whether the lake’s microbes represent another line of life, they show that organisms can have a chemical architecture different from what is currently understood to be possible.

“One of the guiding principles in the search for life on other planets, and of our astrobiology program, is that we should ‘follow the elements,’” said Ariel Anbar, an ASU professor and biogeochemist. [Biochemist and researcher] “Felisa [Wolfe-Simon]‘s study teaches us that we ought to think harder about which elements to follow.”

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Contract confusion

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A little fuzzy on the distinctions between various types of federal contracts?

Don’t feel bad, because some federal contracting officers are, too, according to a Federal Register notice published today.

In a jointly filed proposed rule, the Defense Department, NASA and the General Services Administration indicate that they are trying to correct the mistaken impression among contracting officers “governmentwide” that the fixed labor rates in time-and-materials/labor-hour contracts make them “fixed-price type contracts.”

In fact, as the Government Accountability Office reported last year, time and materials contracts are considered high-risk because the contractor’s profit hinges on the number of hours worked.

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Report: Ex-Sen. Stevens, former NASA administrator believed aboard crashed plane

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Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe are believed to have been aboard a plane that crashed in southwest Alaska last night, according to the Associated Press.

O’Keefe is chief executive officer of defense contractor EADS North America. EADS told the AP that O’Keefe was on board the plane. Friends of Stevens think he was a passenger as well, according to the Anchorage Daily News. The Alaska National Guard said there are possible fatalities in the crash, but Stevens’ and O’Keefe’s conditions are currently unknown.

UPDATE: The National Transportation Safety Board says nine people were aboard, and five of them are dead. Still no word on Stevens and O’Keefe.

UPDATE 2: CNN reported shortly before 2:30 p.m. that Stevens is one of the five passengers who were killed.

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NASA engineers join forces with rock band OK Go

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OK Go bassist Timothy Nordwind, after being thoroughly slimed by NASA

OK Go bassist Timothy Nordwind, after being thoroughly slimed by NASA

You may have seen the music video for OK Go’s song “This Too Shall Pass.” But what you probably don’t know is that the amazing, extended Rube Goldberg device that is its centerpiece was partly designed by a few engineers and staffers at NASA’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JPL engineers Mike Pauken and Heather Knight, planetary scientist Eldar Noe Dobrea, and intern Chris Becker joined forces with Syyn Labs, a group of engineers who “twist together art and technology” and were tapped to build OK Go’s machine. The results — featuring dominos, a falling piano, a Mars rover, and a TV showing the band’s “treadmill” video, all perfectly synchronized with the catchy song – took months to design and build, and required more than 60 takes to go off without a hitch.

NASA posted a great interview with the four earlier this week, in which they go into some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and challenges. (For instance, the small items were some of the hardest to pull off correctly, because even dust can throw off the timing of their chain reactions.) Their creativity and sense of humor helps show why NASA continually ranks among the best places to work in the government.

Oh, and don’t listen to the trolls griping on the NASA page about it being a waste of tax dollars. The engineers did it all on their own time and with materials provided by the band, or collected from junkyards and thrift stores. Anyone who finds something to criticize in this video has no soul.

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NASA “pad fuehrer” Guenter Wendt dead at 85

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Guenter Wendt/NASA

Guenter Wendt, a NASA contractor who was in charge of launch pad activity during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, passed away today at 85.

The German-born Wendt ruled his launch pads with an iron fist — so much so that astronauts affectionately dubbed him the “pad fuehrer.”

“It’s easy to get along with Guenter,” astronaut Pete Conrad once said. “All you have to do is agree with him.”

But deep down, astronauts such as Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper appreciated his attention to detail and his dogged enforcement of the rules designed to keep them alive. As Wendt said in his 2001 memoir:

If you came up to the spacecraft, you didn’t touch it without my permission. During emergencies, I wouldn’t have time to form a committee. I had to make sure I had the authority to make the decision whenever anything became critical. Simply put, in an emergency the buck stopped with me.

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