Petty Politics and Uncoordinated Outreach at NASA

By Keith Cowing
May 30, 2007
Filed under
Petty Politics and Uncoordinated Outreach at NASA

Editor’s note: This letter (500 KB PDF) was written by a NASA subcontractor to Johnson Space Center management in February 2007 regarding experiences on project Constellation outreach and public relations.

Multiple NASA sources have authenticated this document – yet I have deleted information that would easily identify the author. This letter has been making the rounds, via faxed photocopies of photocopies, so I am certain it won’t be that heard for someone to identify the author if they have a mind to do so. I just do not want to make it easier for that to happen than I need to. The reason: people who speak out at NASA often find future work prospects suddenly evaporating. Besides, it is the content of this letter that is important, not the identity of its author.

I find myself in near total agreement with the opinions expressed by the author with regard to the dysfunctional way NASA conducts public affairs and outreach. As to the problems the agency has in carrying such activities out, the author describes them perfectly. The author also offers some intelligent analysis and solutions that NASA would do well to consider.

Several years ago, something called “One NASA” appeared on everyone’s to do list at NASA. It sounded great – for about 10 seconds – until you realized what it actually called for: the agency acting as one cohesive, integrated entity with all people and organizations helping one another so as to speak with a unified voice. In other words, everyone was supposed to put aside parochial issues and work for the common good.

We all know that NASA is utterly incapable of doing this – especially when it comes to the NASA Public Affairs Office (PAO) and outreach. Headquarters directorates, programs, and agency field centers all have their own outreach efforts (and budgets) over which PAO or Headquarters (the 9th floor) itself has little or no oversight. And none of these things are ever integrated properly with other projects and programs resulting in needless conflicts and duplications.

And of course, everyone has their little petty political games to play so as to posture themselves, their project, and their field center in a position so as to benefit the most and/or thwart others from doing so. This letter outlines a classic example of how NASA simply cannot get out of its own way.

I went back and forth as to whether I should post this. I eventually decided that the document already had a wide distribution. But much more importantly, I feel that the author has written some important things that need to be heard. Will posting this make the agency and some people who work there look bad? I guess so. But so long as these problems are allowed to fester unattended – things will only get worse.

The NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) will call upon every resource – and every person – at NASA to contribute together as a team. The activities described in this letter are anything but teamwork.

To be certain, there are people at NASA PAO and Strategic Communications at NASA Headquarters who are trying to do the right thing and are addressing some of these lingering issues. But if, in the end, NASA is incapable of moving beyond the petty antics and confused messages that are outlined in this letter, the VSE will never result in one single piece of functional hardware.

Comments? Send them to nasawatch@reston.com. Your Comments thus far:

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