You Can’t Explore the Universe if You Sit on Your Hands

By Keith Cowing
November 16, 2003
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You Can’t Explore the Universe if You Sit on Your Hands

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing legendary mission controller Gene Kranz address NASA Headquarters employees.

I managed to worm my way into the auditorium as “NASA alumni”. The auditorium was filled to capacity. Looking around, I saw several dozen people I know.

Kranz gave a stump speech as he has been doing for a number of years. He peppered his comments with events that had happened during NASA’s early days, and detailed how the agency rose again and again after a tragedy to get back to flight and to make things better. At the core of his presentation was the work ethic that he helped develop over the years at MOD – Mission Operations Directorate at NASA JSC.

When Kranz finished (to strong, but restrained applause) Sean O’Keefe opened up the presentation to questions. He started with the audience at NASA HQ.


During the awkward silence, I made a point of scanning the room. People were just sitting on their hands. No one seemed to have the look on their face that you’d associate with someone who has a burning question – or even a lukewarm question for that matter. On the other hand, I had, oh, 20 questions that I would love to have asked.

Here was a guy (Kranz) who epitomizes the “right stuff”, retro haircut, aw shucks speaking style, the whole package. You’d think that someone among the hundreds of people in the room would have a question.

Instead, everyone just sat there, inert, just like crash test dummies. I saw several people in particular who I know rather well who are enthusiastic public speakers in their own right. Not today.

After a few moments, Langley Research Center Director Roy Bridges spoke up – not with a question – but rather to introduce the several dozen new employees of the NESC who were seated in the audience. Polite applause followed.

O’Keefe then called on other NASA centers for questions. I have to be honest, although you probably can attribute the way in which questions were asked to nervousness on the part of people who are not used to speaking up in front of thousands of people – on TV, for the most part, the questions sounded rehearsed. Several sounded like someone’s management had written the questions – ones which dealt with specific sections of the CAIB report. Other questions sounded like they were not scripted, but rather from the heart.

One question had to do with the mathematical risk that NASA has to accept – and whether the public’s perception of risk might serve to prevent NASA from doing things. Kranz replied “things are different now than in the 1960s – and back to the 1950s. You had people free falling from 95,000 feet riding on rocket sleds. Accepting some risk was a key component of the very rapid progress made in military aeronautics- and it carried over to NASA – and continued through the 1970s into the 1980s. The American public has a very short memory. It is important for NASA to put this risk in public focus. The real challenge is to make our nation understand this risk.”

O’Keefe added that back in the early days of space exploration “we were not in the 24/7 environment with a constant barrage of information. The Viet Nam era changed that. Before that time it was not in our face every day. Add to that that we are a public agency doing risky things in a big fish tank – we really need to be aware f that.”

The issue of communications was then raised. Kranz said that good communication “is related to the quality of leadership and the trust they have within the agency,” Looking back at his days at NASA Kranz said that he worked to have “involved middle managers” and that he was “not bashful about going out to the design community”

When I was a NASA civil servant at the Utilization and Operations Office at the Space Station Freedom Program Office (SSFPO) in Reston, Virginia, my senior management were people who were brought up in Kranz’s organization. Many of my co-workers had sat at consoles and/or trained crews. As such this notion of getting us in the midst of the engineering and science aspects was a no-brainer. Indeed, with the nonstop design reviews (and multiple redesigns) we did, it struck me as the logical thing to do. We were encouraged to visit the field centers, crawl inside things, and ask how they worked.

Another question went to the issue of speaking up without fear of retribution. O’Keefe said “this may be one of the most annoying of all issues identified by the CAIB This one ought to disturb us. The CAIB had evidence that people had felt that they we e not able to raise concerns. Indeed, they saw this for themselves during the investigation”.

Speaking to the need to make certain that people are not only feeling free to raise concerns, but actually raising them, O’Keefe said “If everyone is in agreement, then you start to reach out for minority opinions.”

With regard to speaking up and raising concerns, you can ask anyone who worked at SSFPO in Reston: it was a dynamic place to say the least. Interactions between folks often got quite heated – even passionate. There was even some shouting from time to time. Yet, once I got used to that ‘culture’ I never really felt afraid to speak my mind since I knew my management would (and did) back me – even if I personally took on senior management from another office in front of a large audience. Indeed, I thought the process was rather invigorating.

Moreover, I knew that I had better know my stuff before I opened my mouth. That was the important aspect of how things worked. If you didn’t have the facts on your side you got shot down fast – and you made doubly certain you had things straight the next time you considered opening your mouth. SSFPO design reviews were often jousting matches and your ability to give as good as you got was often the way that important issues got a full hearing. Yet, at the end of the day, we all went outside to a keg of beer and a Texas-style barbeque. Our parties, thrown for a variety of reasons, were legendary.

A lot of this has echoes that reach back to the environment from which many at SSFPO arose – the MOD world at NASA JSC. Many of the names associated with Apollo 13 – in space and on the ground – were working in the Freedom program. “Mentoring” is a buzz word many lean on when they try and suggest ways to pass on knowledge. Let me tell you, not a day went by when real time mentoring wasn’t underway full throttle. Many of those folks who benefited from that mentoring are still at NASA. Some have rather prominent positions.

Alas, the MOD world Gene Kranz helped to create, although it resides at JSC, does not represent JSC’s overall work ethos. And it does not represent how things are done across the agency as a whole. Certain core tenets are, in my opinion worth emulating. Others, as the Columbia accident demonstrated, might need some rethinking.

I do feel, however, that there are powerful and poignant lessons to be learned from the days when everyone was young and didn’t know any better than to try to do the impossible – and when things broke and people died, to dust themselves off and get back in the saddle again.

This week the agency is in a review mode. Everyone is tasked to read the CAIB report (everyone has their own copy) and to reflect on what it says, determine if it is applicable to areas outside of human spaceflight. Each center will take a different tack, as benefits their own subset of NASA’s culture, but all will consider the report none the less.

During and after the Kranz event I spoke to a number of people in the audience about what he said – and why there was such apparent reluctance to speak up. In particular, I asked them why they didn’t ask a question – and why they thought everyone else was happy just to sit on their hands Three people in particular had almost the same response. It wasn’t really a fear of losing their job or overt retribution, but rather one where they did not feel comfortable asking a question for fear that it might anger their superiors. Some just didn’t feel that it was worth the bother.

When the Space Station Freedom program was dismantled, and many of its participants vilified, it was done by an Administrator who adopted a pervasive ethic of shooting the messenger. You dared not speak out. Budget numbers were cooked, and political decisions were made for technical reasons and technical decisions were made of political reasons. Technical decisions were no longer being made as they should have been: for technical reasons.

Now, in the aftermath of a real tragedy wherein people died, faulty communication is seen as being at the core of much of what went wrong. NASA has an Administrator who, in contrast to his predecessor, seems to find himself repeating a call for speaking out and raising concerns on almost a daily basis. And what is the response of his workforce? Based on the Kranz event, it would seem that they chose the safe route: to sit on their hands.

Right now the White House is considering possible new directions for NASA and America’s space program. Part of the equation is going to have to do with whether the President feels that NASA is up to the task. Not everyone in a position to have a say in advising the President thinks NASA is.

To the NASA workforce: NASA is not going to solve all of its problems during one week of bible study with the CAIB report. But, damn it, it’s as good a place as any to start. This time, it is not up to your management, rather it is up to each and every member of the NASA family.

Like the NASA Watch motto says “Remember: It’s YOUR space agency. Get involved. Take it back. Make it work – for YOU.”

If you don’t care enough to open your mouth, then why would anyone else? Indeed, why should the White House?

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  • NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Get With The Program
  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.