Deep thoughts (for me, anyway)

Reader Marine6 asked on the Conestoga post, “Do you think that maybe part of the problem at NASA has been that they haven’t had a decent Administrator since Dick Truly?”

My first thought is no. NASA takes direction from the President, so when you have a President that cares about space and believes in the technological advances that striving for space should bring, then you have a positive direction and everyone pulling together. When you have a President that doesn’t care about space or only wants to please certain Senators and Congressmen, then that muddies the waters.

On the other hand, having a competent Administrator does help. The Administrator has to be the grown-up over a bunch of squabbling kids, i.e. the various centers. Everyone wants a big piece of the pie, and there’s only so much pie to go around. I don’t envy him the job of balancing manned flight, earth science, space science, aeronautics, and Congressional earmarks. This is where Dan Goldin wasn’t a great Administrator – the impression I got of his management technique was, “let’s you and him fight.” Too many of the remaining managers have risen through that system and learned it too well.

On the other hand, I did like the “faster, better, cheaper” programs he brought, even though in reality you can only pick two of those. I might be looking back through rose-colored glasses, but still, we took some risks, we launched some spacecraft, and we learned you can’t scrimp on testing. The main thing is that they were BUILT and FLOWN, not some paper study for a year and a half.

I understand that NASA had money management problems, but I can’t see where the full-cost accounting implemented by Sean O’Keefe helped. We have more people in charge of controlling the money, but much more frustration on my level, e.g. there is a charge code for the J-2X engine, another one for the J-2X nozzle, and yet another one for the nozzle coating. It’s also led to nearly every piece of equipment with a digital readout or a RS-232 port being classified as IT. (sigh)

O’Keefe could have left NASA right after the Columbia accident, and I do admire him for sticking with it through some very bad days. Give him props for that.

Mike Griffin was too smart for his own good, and I haven’t decided anything on Bolden yet.

NASA truly (no pun intended) needs a big shake-up. There is a failure of leadership all the way up the line, and a change in administrator alone isn’t going to fix that.

Where I see more influence in employee morale is the center director. I like the current one because He. Actually. Visits. The. Labs. One oft-told story about Wernher von Braun is that he would leave his office and go down to the labs and the shops, unannounced and unaccompanied, and see what was going on. He knew enough to ask pertinent questions, and it was an opportunity to bring up problems or “this could be a whole lot better if we did this…” I’ve been through eight center directors, and I saw four of them only on awards day. How well do you know what’s going on when all you know has been filtered through four layers of management?

4 thoughts on “Deep thoughts (for me, anyway)”

  1. Full cost accounting is one of those management “tools” that sounds great. Theoretically, managers need the detailed information to make proper decisions.

    Unfortunately, so much time is wasted fooling with it at the production level that 1) it harms productivity, and 2) the workforce develops workarounds to restore productivity. That distorts and skews the very information flow to management that the program was introduced to provide.

  2. Excellent article…..and, one of the reasons I walked away when I had the chance. Its past time for NASA to once again set the standards and lead rather than follow someone else. There have been 12 men walk on the Moon, all American, all without full cost accounting or ISO. I hope I live long enough to see American astronauts launch on American hardware again. There is a video about NASA and manned space flight titled ‘The Dream Is Alive”, I fear what we are witnessing however is ‘The Death Of The Dream’! I believe also that I have known the author of this posting for many years and have the highest regard for the professionalism and dedication to mission accomplishment he/she (I won’t reveal any more than that) has always exibited. There are still those at NASA proud to be part of the legacy of what this great country can achieve. Just give them a mission, get out of the way, then stand back and watch the wonder. I wish them well.

  3. We got to Apollo with a WW2 mindset in NASA. They had a mission and the agency was allowed to keep its eye on that goal. They did it with less computing power than I have my workstation.

    NASA is adrift because of what Jerry Pournelle has called the Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Eventually the mission of any bureaucracy is survival of the organization. The mission of the agency becomes secondary. NASA is not immune.

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