Reorganization at NASA: More Smoke and Mirrors

By Keith Cowing
January 5, 2011
Filed under
Reorganization at NASA: More Smoke and Mirrors

Not everyone is happy with the proposed merger of ESMD (Exploration Systems Mission Directorate) and SOMD (Space Operations Mission Directorate). Sources report that the White House is not sold on the idea and Congress is not exactly keen on it either. One concern is that the merger would make it harder to see how Constellation cancellation is being handled (paid for), how Shuttle is being phased out, how ISS is being operated, and how commercial access to ISS is being brought online.

NASA has a history of doing things like this. After the Challenger accident, projects were moved away from centers to program offices. Space Station Freedom was one example with a Program Office established in Reston, 23 miles from NASA Headquarters. Four “Work Packages” were set up to spread the work around at GSFC, GRC, JSC, MSFC, and KSC. When the SSF program got in trouble, they reorganized it, closed the Reston Level II office, and moved it to JSC. They also reorganized the work packages (which were eventually abolished). When JSC ran into trouble with ISS a few years later, NASA moved overall ISS management to NASA Headquarters. Later they moved some of it back to JSC.

In the early 1990’s, when Space Station program was already being redesigned for the first time, NASA took a development organization (Code D) and the operational Space Shuttle Office (Code M) and merged them together. A decade later, as the VSE was coming into existence, two organizations, SOMD (operations) and ESMD (development) were formed. When GSFC made a mess of Webb Space Telescope, responsibility was moved to SMD at NASA HQ. Then there is the saga of OSSA (Office of Space Science and Applications) being split in to OLMSA (Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications), OSS (Space Science), and OES (Earth Science); OES and OSS being merged into SMD (Science Mission Directorate); OLMSA being swallowed into ESMD etc.

NASA is forever changing mail codes (and printing new phone books). Indeed, they often seem to spend more times changing management trees and mail codes than they spend on actually executing projects. Oh, and then try and follow program costs as they weave back in time from one organization to another via these managerial reshuffles. Never a straight line can be drawn, making it hard to see what things actually “cost”.

NASA clearly has no standard operating and managerial paradigm that they follow. Management plans and governance models are outmoded before the formal documents are even baselined. These documents are usually ignored – witness the way that JSC Center Director Mike Coats told Bolden what they were going to do vis-a-vis Constellation – for months on end – instead of the other way around. Charlie Bolden hasn’t provided a single insight into a better way to run the agency. Indeed, he is currently held hostage by the dysfunctionality he inherited – a dysfunctionality that has gotten much worse during his tenure.

True to form, NASA once again seeks to reorganize he current way of doing things (SOMD/ESMD) when there is some impression that the status quo is not working. This way they can tell Congress, the media, their “stakeholders”, etc. that they have responded to a perceived problem and direction from Congress by changing the way things are managed. Alas, several years from now, when things go off the rails again, there will be a call to split development and operations (once again).

Of course, this is the time when everyone wants to dig up the quote by Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter (ca. 27-66 AD): “We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

“Smoke and mirrors”, “rearranging the deck chairs”, “the more things change the more they remain the same” – pick your favorite phrase.

NASA is adrift once again and all they can manage to do is have everyone in the boat change seats.

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