The New NASA Advisory Council Meets – At Last. But Something Is Missing

By Keith Cowing
November 29, 2005
Filed under
The New NASA Advisory Council Meets – At Last.  But Something Is Missing

The newly reconfigured NASA Advisory Council (membership) met today at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC. This was the first time that the NAC had met in a year – and was also the first time it met with Mike Griffin as NASA Administrator.

The panel that was announced today contains 24 members. Many of the faces are familiar to veteran space program watchers. Others are familiar, no doubt, to those who watch other agencies, or related private sector activities. And then there are a few new faces to round out the panel. The chair – former senator and Apollo 17 moonwalker Harrison “Jack” Schmitt – certainly no stranger to the world of space – and politics. Neither is fellow panel member Neil Armstrong.

There is one glaring – and unforgivable omission in the panel’s composition – but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Who can – or should – be allowed to Advise NASA

Griffin opened the NAC meeting today with some introductory comments. An excerpt provides insight into the view Griffin takes towards external advice – and who should be allowed to give it:

“As I see this incarnation of the advisory council – it is important and I’d like to mention a couple of reasons why its important – and maybe more important to me than it has been – than has been seen – in the past few years of the advisory council.

The advisory council is one of two bodies specifically chartered by Congress – and the only two bodies chartered by Congress to give advice to NASA. Those two are the NASA Advisory Council and the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

NASA gets a lot of advice – much of it from folks who are not necessarily sharing all of our objectives – and certainly not necessarily qualified by virtue of education and experience in the field to give that advice.

I think [that] the privilege of giving formal advice to NASA that we should – and ought – to listen to – is a privilege that has to be earned – and it should be accorded to those people who have the highest credentials of accomplishment in fields of endeavor relevant to our business. I think that this panel today represents a group of such people who can work with us across several major areas to provide the kind of outside steering – outside critique – that we need. I am looking forward to that.”

This is a somewhat elitist stance for Griffin to take. To be certain, you need people with a background in space, allied sciences, related industries, large-scale program management and economics to provide advice on those aspects of how NASA should operate. No argument there.

But not everything NASA does requires that sort of advice – since much of what NASA does for the taxpayers does not require a degree in rocket science to understand. Far too often, advisory panels are stacked with people who talk to each other too much. Like a turbocharger in an automobile they breathe in their own exhaust instead of fresh air.

The previous NAC counted among its members James Cameron. While Cameron happens to be a rather skilled engineer in his own right, he is, foremost, an artist – and a communicator. When he spoke at NAC meetings – and other NASA events – he often sought to infuse his advice with input from the real world outside of NASA. Much of what he had to say would not be expected to come out of the mouth of a professional committee member.

To be certain, there is more than enough oratorical horsepower when it comes to communicating with the public on the new NAC. Neil De Grasse Tyson, whose presentations often echo Carl Sagan’s popular approach, is the first one to come to mind. Indeed he was already stepping a bit outside the box today to make some important points.

But for Mike Griffin say that someone has to pass some test (which he never specified other than to say that he was going to pick people) – thus implying that not everyone is competent to advise on a space program – one that everyone is paying for – smacks of a little too much time spent an ivory tower.

Advisors Advise

While the chair, Sen. Schmitt, and other members certainly provided input on members, Griffin made it very clear that he was going to pick a NAC that he could work with. Indeed, he made this clear from the moment he arrived back at NASA. According to the he minutes from the 19 April 2005 Enterprise Council:

“Previously NASA had one NASA Advisory Committee, and Mr. O’Keefe split the committee in two. Dr. Griffin is recombining the committee back into one committee, and he will select people that he respects as members. Also the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, which is mandated, will be staffed by people he admires and respects. He will be elevating their role and status.”

In a press conference that same day Griffin made it clear as to what role he saw for advisory committees: “Advisory groups advise. The NASA line managers have the responsibility for executing the program. We need to take our advice very seriously and very carefully when it is given, and we need never to be defensive about receiving advice from outside. But at the end of the day, the people wearing government and contractor badges charged with launching the vehicle will be the ones who are responsible and accountable for their actions.”

Griffin has made similar comments on multiple occasions – all to the same point: advisors advise.

To be certain, this is a rather healthy approach. If all NASA does is sit and wait for external panels to be satisfied with everything NASA does – or wants to do, NASA won’t do anything. But these panels do serve a purpose: to provide advice – and providing advice to someone who is not listening is a waste of everyone’s time.

Flying Solo

A meeting of the NASA Advisory Council had been previously scheduled for the next two days. It was postponed – with the official reason being that “The meeting will be re-scheduled when the new NASA Administrator is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The postponement will allow the new Administrator to meet with the Council, once he is fully on board and up to speed.”

Again, it certainly makes sense that the new Administrator would be given a chance to catch his breath and get a lay of the land before beginning to make his mark on the agency. Mike Griffin did not do that. He hit the ground running and left the advisory structure to the winds.

The previous NAC meeting had been held on 7 December 2004. It took Griffin’s staff more than 7 months to come up with a new NAC membership and schedule a meeting. All the while, Griffin was making substantial changes to the way that the agency operated including large-scale program cancellations – without the benefit of the Congressionally charted advisory body he is supposed to turn to periodically – for advice in such matters. Given that the new NAC, while composed of many unquestionably knowledgeable members, has now met only once, it will likely be several more months before they hit their stride.

Where are they?

As noted before, this panel is certainly rich with experience – and rather low in terms of wallflowers or panelist who fall asleep. But there is something lacking – something a number of the members of the audience noticed immediately this morning.

Of the 24 members of the NASA Advisory Council, only one is female.

Give that Mike Griffin has made a point of saying that he will pick a NAC and “select people that he respects as members” this glaring omission is troubling. The odd irony to this situation became rather poignant when Jack Schmitt told the NAC that Shana Dale was being sworn in at that moment across town as NASA Deputy Administrator – the first woman to hold that job – and the highest rank ever achieved by a woman at NASA (unless you count piloting and commanding a couple of shuttle missions).

I don’t for a moment think that Griffin or any of his advisors set out to avoid picking female NAC members – consciously or unconsciously. But when you are trying to set up a panel that provides the maximum amount of advice – balanced and tempered by personal background, you’d think that more than one female candidate would pass muster. Given the range of skin tones and surnames represented by the NAC membership, the issue of race and ethnicity did not seem to be a difficult one to tackle.

So where are the women?

I had a discussion about this with a long time friend – also present at the meeting – who has been involved with the space industry for decades. She was totally exasperated. Citing Enrico Fermi’s famous comment about why no one has ever seen any extraterrestrials (if they do indeed exist) – and wondering about women in aerospace – she nodded toward the dais where the NAC was sitting and said “where are they?”

By coincidence, there are ‘women in aerospace’. Lots of them. There is even an organization in Washington, DC – Women in Aerospace – currently celebrating its 20th year. Shana Dale is a member. Mike Griffin has been seen at a number of their events. Its not like you can’t find these women!

Again, I don’t think for a moment that Griffin set out to have a 1/24 female representation on the NAC. But he signed off on the membership – and someone on his staff should have done something about this. Not to detract from the fine credentials of all other NAC members, but the gross under representation of more than half the U.S. population on this panel was either laziness or sloppiness on the part of Griffin’s staff. You pick the one you prefer.

WIA is holding a breakfast this Friday with “NASA’s Senior Female Leadership”. I wonder if this topic will come up.

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