Tonya Johnson: Taking Stock of NASA

Johnson, Tonya 03They might have a firm understanding of jet propulsion, but even rocket scientists need auditors. Enter Tonya Johnson, who interned with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) this summer. She audited NASA’s large systems projects, getting familiar with human space travel as she analyzed project budgets and timelines.

“It was cool that as grad student intern I got to interview NASA project engineers,” says Johnson, a second-year MPA student. “I got to ask questions like ‘Why did you overspend your budget?’ It was a bit intimidating, but I definitely learned a lot.”

The GAO works for congress to investigate how the government spends taxpayer dollars. Johnson worked on several projects to ensure that the millions of dollars that go into NASA’s projects were wisely spent. Her favorite project to inspect was Orion, a capsule that will launch American crews into deep space.

“The projects were interesting, and I like the GAO’s mission to keep the government accountable for its spending,” she says. “I really appreciate the high quality of the work that the GAO does. It was awesome working for a group that was so experienced and professional.”

Her work consisted of scouring monthly reports to see how each project was doing, interviewing project managers, and compiling reports for congress. Johnson even helped present her findings to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, even though she hadn’t planned on it.

“My boss was briefing on a project related to Orion, and someone asked what was going on with it,” she says. “So my boss looked at me and I told them about Orion. It was pretty nerve-racking, but I was really familiar with the project and it went well.”

Despite surprises, Johnson says she was well prepared for the tasks she was assigned, which included program auditing and performance evaluation. She’s looking forward to working in a related field, saying that she enjoys the research environment and helping promote responsibility and accountability.

“The MPA program was definitely good preparation for my internship, in terms of research and critical-thinking skills,” she says. “Something I would really love to do in the future is use these skills for performance evaluation, either in the private or public sector.”

Cover image courtesy of Xedos4 at