Status Report

Impact LESA BULLETIN: He May ‘Get It’, But Exactly What ‘It’ Does He Get?

By SpaceRef Editor
November 6, 2003
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Impact LESA BULLETIN 2003-010



Virginia A. Cantwell, President

November 2003

He May “Get It”, But Exactly What “It” Does He Get?

By Dr. William H. Jones

I have read the first volume of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report and, in a nutshell, it advances the thought that NASA’s management structure and culture is as much, or more, to blame for the loss of the Columbia and her crew as the direct mechanical failures that were identified. I have heard Administrator Sean O’Keefe state on several occasions that he has read the report and that he “Gets It”, that upper management “Gets It”, and that NASA is going to change. Well, I hope so, because if management and the agency could get itself straightened out and on the path to universal peace and light, I could stop writing these fool articles and stick to the research that I’m best at. Unfortunately, though, having listened to Administrator O’Keefe talk (most recently on his visit to the Glenn Research Center some days ago), I don’t believe I’ll be setting aside my word processor any time soon.

To focus on one particular exchange, let us take up a question asked at our recent All Hands meeting with the Administrator: an in-house contractor with about 10 years experience expressed his desire to become a civil servant and asked why all the new civil servant slots were going exclusively to hire fresh-outs. Administrator O’Keefe deftly avoided answering this question and, instead, delivered an exposition on the need for the Congress to settle the terms of H.R. 1085, the NASA Flexibility Act of 2003, vote it through, and give him the power to actually hire people. While nothing Administrator O’Keefe said was factually in error, the combination of question and answer amounted to what many would call an adroit political evasion to advance the President’s Management Agenda. Engineers would call it a lie.

To very briefly summarize H.R. 1085, and the Administrator’s technically accurate remarks on it, it would give the Administrator the flexibility to offer (some few) high salaries, bonuses, advancements in leave standing, relocation compensations, and the like to attract people with critical and non-critical skills to come to NASA. Additionally, it would provide some improved bonuses and the like to encourage people that we no longer need to leave NASA. All well and good, but none of it to the questioner’s point: the young man did not want a signing bonus, he didn’t have to relocate, he hadn’t turned down an offer because it would take him back to two weeks vacation a year.

The point was that no offer had ever been made to him while those that had were made to fresh college graduates. Furthering his political evasion, Administrator O’Keefe avoiding stating the simple fact that there is no rule or regulation preventing NASA from making this young man an offer, or at least there is none preventing offers being made to people of his experience. The Administrator’s evasion continued in that he avoided the fact that H.R. 1085 has absolutely nothing to say on the topic of fresh-outs versus people of experience in the context of preferences or prohibitions. Indeed, if H.R. 1085 has a predilection, it would be that at least some people of profound experience are desired since the Administrator may grant up to 10 such people extraordinary (for the government) salaries.

I would not suggest that I know the truthful answer to the man’s question. My perception is that the Glenn Research Center is hiring fresh-outs in an effort to change our own culture. At times, we feel that we have a terrible, fiercely competitive, in-fighting, fragmented, sand-bagging, tooth-and-nail, fight-to-the-death culture. Far from the One NASA concept, I have seen individuals here who could hardly stand to agree with themselves, much less the person at the next desk. The idea is that the only way to change this is to replace all the existing employees with fresh, young faces gullible enough to accept the “Model Workplace” du jour hallucinogens being pumped out by management. It might be the government’s version of’s management insight: “Sometimes the best way to handle a morale problem is to fire all the unhappy employees.” Whether this will work is a matter of debate.

Having said all this, we can now get to the issue: does the Administrator “Get It”? The implication of the CAIB report was that the real shuttle operations environment was one of appearance over reality, cronyism, expediency, political necessity, and management intimidation of anyone that adversely affected those priorities. The goal is to change that, to create an environment where each legitimate concern is voiced and heard, considered and properly resolved; simply put, an environment where truth and reality are the honored values. Further, the goal is to make that the habitual culture, not just the show we put on for the public until things can get back to normal.

As the Administrator himself has said, such a change of culture starts at the top; he must speak the truth, he must acknowledge reality, and he must answer the question asked, not a politically-convenient one vaguely like it. If the Administrator expects upper, middle, and line management, the grunts in the trenches, and the bolt-tighteners in the shop to adopt such values and to believe that such values exist as a practical reality, he must show them how it is done by example, he must constantly lead that life for them to see even when he is back in his natural element in front of a Congressional committee. NASA will not become an agency of forthright truth and acknowledged reality while led by a master, active practitioner of the astute political evasion, the political agenda subtly advanced, and the politically-difficult meeting avoided. If the Administrator “Gets It”, he ought to start doing “It”.

Dr. Jones is available through e-mail at and also reads the newsgroup regularly; however, he reserves the right to say nothing at his convenience.

LESA dues paying members in good standing are encouraged to submit articles for review and possible publication for a future IMPACT Bulletin. Please send your articles by E-mail to, or by mail to IFPTE, Local 28, MS 15-10

SpaceRef staff editor.