NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Leadership

By Keith Cowing
September 15, 2003
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NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Leadership

The word “leadership” has surfaced a lot lately in what Sean O’Keefe says. He uses the word in response to questions about how he is going to make the changes in the way NASA’s people do things – the so called “cultural” issues that many are fond of pointing to – issues that are often hard to define – even for O’Keefe’s Deputy.

Part of the change being attempted at NASA is to realign senior management with people who “get it”, to use O’Keefe’s stock phrase. O’Keefe was already doing this – albeit at a slower pace – when the Columbia was lost. After a period of dealing with imminent issues relating to the accident, O’Keefe began to return to this task armed with a new urgency.

“Leadership” is something that is supposed to be practiced by “leaders”. O’Keefe has been busy of late with his senior management. On September 5th and 6th O’Keefe, all of his field center directors, his Associate Administrators, and other senior staff, spent some time outside of Washington D.C. going over the changes that O’Keefe feels that the agency needs to undergo. Speaking to reporters earlier in that week O’Keefe said “there are a lot of people in the agency who are in denial. It is part of human behavior. I am not a Pollyanna about this. This report addresses hardware as well as human failures.”

In speaking to reporters on September 3rd, O’Keefe said “the leadership team that is here now is here for a reason. We have confidence in these people. As time continues on, should there be the need for other adjustments, they will be made. There is nobody in that team who believes that this is about them. These are people that know this is larger than anyone of us. This is a group that understands that. A lot of change has already occurred. I think that is indicative of our intent in this regard.”

On September 1oth O’Keefe replied to several pointed questions about management changes and culture by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX). O’Keefe noted that “three- quarters of leadership of this agency is different now than it was before. People have been removed for a variety of reasons. Others have been reassigned, others have left the agency.”

O’Keefe apparently made his intentions very clear to his top management team including what he means when he says “NASA gets it” – a reference to the management issues raised by the CAIB. O’Keefe broadened this message at the beginning of the following week when he spoke to an all hands meeting of NASA’s SES (Senior Executive Service) Corps at NASA Headquarters.

A variety of reports have come out of this meeting. While some attendees did engage in an open conversation with O’Keefe and others, the vast majority of those in attendance sat on their hands and were silent. Some were seen to be sleeping. Others sat and chatted in the audience while the larger discussion went on down in front. Others left early. All in all, a rather underwhelming response from the agency’s top tier of managers.

Some of the attendees felt that O’Keefe lectured too long and was being overly professorial. Others wished he could have stayed longer and spoke in greater detail. Most, however, seemed to be content with sitting there and not participating at all. O’Keefe’s greatest challenge, as he alluded to in his comments to reporters, may well be human and not mechanical.

Since the CAIB report was issued, I have asked of NASA Watch readers to send in their comments about the report. If they wished to do so anonymously, their comments were posted as such. While I was pleasantly surprised at the volume of the replies and the thought that went into them, I was disappointed at the nearly unanimous anonymity that was requested.

Given that Dan Goldin is long gone, you’d think that people would open up a bit. Given that these responses came from every NASA Field Center, every contractor, and every floor of NASA HQ, this is especially telling. According to attendees in this meeting, O’Keefe made specific reference to these NASA Watch responses and the fact that this penchant for anonymity amongst rank and file – as well as senior management – was clear evidence that many managers still do “get it” at NASA.

While the respondents were eager to share their insights and observations about what others were doing wrong, rarely did they shine the light on their own shortcomings. Moreover, they all seemed to want to find fault elsewhere – and suggest that someone else needed to be fixing something. Of course, this simply can’t be right. If everyone thinks someone else is to blame – then everyone is to blame.

This is going to be a Herculean task: how do you inspire and motivate people to come out of their shells – shells they recreate into out of fear of recrimination, without adding to that fear of recrimination in the process. Not an easy task.

On September 11th I made mention of this SES meeting – and what did and did not happen – to Sean O’Keefe. In phrasing my question I said “the bogey man (Goldin) is gone – and with him the whole notion that you can be canned for speaking out. People are told ‘talk, talk, we want to hear from you.’ Yet they sit on their hands. What do you do when you create an environment where they can speak out – but they don’t? Do you light a fire under these people? Do you pull a fire alarm? What is it that you need to do?”

O’Keefe replied “I am Jesuit trained and now I fully understand what they meant about making converts one at a time. There is no doubt about it – it really takes a lot of energy and a lot of effort. We’ve really got to through it methodically. Its not going to be like a moment where everyone stands up – like they do in a revival tent. It is not going to happen. We have to demonstrate by our actions that we are saying that we mean what we say. We need to create an atmosphere where objections and concerns will be raised. I find this to be amazing because in my 18 months around here I have never found anyone to be bashful. There is nothing intimidating about this place.”

He continued “But, that said, the CAIB clearly says that it is true – the board members have attested to the fact that they have witnessed this themselves. There is an overwhelming set of contributions on your webpage [NASA Watch] that are anonymous – and that’s a telling signal right there that we’re just not ‘getting it’. There are issues out there that we’ve just got to enjoin. The place that this has got to begin with senior leadership and senior folks around the agency. We’ve got to keep working that every single day – and for those who just can’t get that message we’ll have to find some other opportunity for them to serve – doing something else [that is] if they can’t step up to the responsibility and the task of being leaders in this case.”


Ground the Shuttle

Beyond the Shuttle

Separating People From Cargo

Farewell to Faster – Better – Cheaper

More Money Please




Speaking Out


– Leadership

Get With The Program

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.