“Arm chair generals study tactics; real generals study logistics” – attributed to General Norman Schwwarzkopf
Many of my old friends and colleagues are asking me a question these days: “If you were NASA Administrator, what would you have the agency do?” I know what they want to hear: Moon, Mars, or Asteroid – what is the next destination for human spaceflight? But that is not the answer I would give. Whatever ‘horizon goal’ is established, without significant organizational and cultural changes at NASA, the chance for success is in doubt.
To make NASA into the extraordinarily effective organization it once was and could be again will require significant work to transform it. NASA is filled with extremely smart, highly motivated individuals who are the experts in their fields. They can do amazing things. Measured against any other organization – government or commercial – the NASA civil service and contractor work force is outstanding in terms of inherent capabilities and the desire to make their projects successful.
But success in NASA’s endeavors is hobbled by three structural and cultural problems: (1) inter-center rivalry, (2) mind numbing bureaucracy, and (3) a paralyzing cultural requirement for perfection in all things.
These are the problems I would propose must be improved for any large scale program to be effective. And frankly, resolving these issues exceeds the NASA Administrator’s authority. Solutions will require not just concurrence from the President, but action by the Congress would be required. And given that somebody somewhere would probably file a lawsuit regarding some of the directions, the Judicial branch would have to concur as well. Rapid, coordinated concurrence from all three branches of government? What are the odds of that? So my title: King for a Day.
So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
“With our own feathers, not by others’ hands,
Are we now smitten.” – Aeschylus, Choephoroe 59
Topic 1: break down inter-center rivalry. NASA was established in 1958 as a collection of 10 loosely federated fiefdoms and it has never broken out of that paradigm. If you ask a typical NASA employee who they work for, the response will be their center, not the agency. Can’t blame them; they are hired through a center, promotions and career advancements come through their center, the very culture of the organization enforces loyalty to a center. Every center has its local politicians and politics centered on local interests, every center has its own history and area of expertise, and every employee is inculcated with the beliefs and norms. Centers sometimes seem united only in their disdain for NASA Headquarters. Not that anybody openly works to sabotage direction from Headquarters, they just bend the direction toward what their individual project and center would like to do. Competition for scarce resources drives rivalries between centers. In addition, there is a huge ‘not invented here’ problem everywhere. Not just with any idea from an organization outside NASA but also with any idea from another center. It makes the workforce ready to find fault, slow to see the advantages of any new thing not born from within their own organization. Secretive, competitive, and ultimately destructive of the larger purpose, these behaviors have been worse in the past but are still present. My solution: make people move. Many organizations both government and industry do this as a matter of course. Move not just the senior leaders, but the journeyman workers. Take the center name off the badges. Develop a ‘Bureau of Personnel” to centralize promotions, bonuses, and career advancement. No small tasks these.
“A system under which it takes three men to check what one is doing is not control; it is systematic strangulation.” – Admiral Hyman G. Rickover
Topic 2: mind numbing bureaucracy. The organization has evolved, as all bureaucracies do, to the point where too many people can say ‘no’ to any action. In the early days of NASA, this was not so. It is good to have checks and balances and oversight, but the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of (electronic) paperwork, diffuse responsibility, and inaction. The system now has watchers watching watchers watching doers – and always with criticism for the doer. Corrective action will take serious attention from any leader. Achieving the proper balance may well be impossible and the best we can hope for is to swing decision making back to the lowest level possible. Gibbs Rule #13 applies here: Never involve the Lawyers.
“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” – Gaius Cornelius Tacitus
Topic 3: the cultural imperative to make everything perfect. This is a very sensitive topic for me. I have personal been involved with decisions that were made with too little information, riding roughshod over the experts in the field. But these days, after Columbia, the agency is paralyzed by requiring too much: too much data, too many tests, too much analysis. In the Apollo days, this was not so. We – and I am a guilty party in this – have trained the work force to make everything perfect before any project can proceed. In this business, nothing is ever perfect. Space flight involves risk, it can never be completely eliminated. But real space flight is actual flight, not studies and ground tests. It is difficult to find the balance of having done enough to be reasonably sure of success and safety and to get on with a project and actually fly. I hate the term ‘risk averse,’ but as much as it makes my teeth grate, the effect of wanting to make every detail perfect has the same outcome as cowardice: never flying.
So when folks ask me that question: “If you were NASA Administrator, what would you have the agency do?” I have a rueful look on my face and tell them any destination – or all three – are good; the tougher job is what we must do to ensure that we get there.
“Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows, for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.”
- Tennyson’s Ulysses