NASA’s Mission? Well, That’s an Easy One, Right?

Okay, okay. Well – most of us in the space business thought that NASA’s mission was well understood, at least within NASA. Most of us actually thought that we did a lousy job of communicating to the taxpayers across the country what the mission is and why it is important. As it turns out, congress understands NASA’s mission and the taxpayer understand the mission, but it is NASA that does not understand its mission.Today’s released interview with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on Al Jazeera’s confusing. Last week, MSFC endured a loss in workforce that is expected to be continued in the fall. The leadership, both NASA and contractor, at MSFC have performed admirably. They had difficult choices to make, but made them wisely by attempting to save as many jobs and skills as possible. Why? Because they don’t know which jobs or skills they will need for the future since the future is very uncertain. This week, the leadership teams at many centers were simply trying to forge ahead and determine the most valuable work to do with the remaining budgets and workforce. This week, many had hoped that this pain was behind us and the debate and discussions could move to the next phase – working on a compromise between congress and the white house. Instead, NASA will endure another dark week ahead because NASA is once again in the spotlight. What’s worse is that NASA is in the spotlight not because it is debating the path forward and forging compromises, but because its leadership and the President seem to misunderstand NASA’s very charter.So, what are we to make of this interview? What are we to make of the reaction? My analysis has run the gamut. It is possible that this was a mis-speak of what was communicated from Obama to Bolden. If it was, then whose idea is it to put Charlie out there on the public circuit to make this kind of gaff? Have they learned nothing from VP Joe? It is also possible that this was exactly what was communicated between Obama and Bolden. Even if it were the mission, whose idea was it to say it in the open on Al Jazeera? Clearly, the reaction from the right in our country could have been foreseen. Can it be possible to return to a fruitful debate on the future missions of NASA and its organization? Moreover, in the wake of last week, and in the heat of the war over Constellation and Human Space Flight, it could also be possible that Bolden is being a good marine. Every good General knows that sometimes the direct orders of the commanding officer are not in line with the good of the effort, the organization nor the troops. Every good General knows that sometimes the leader must sacrifice himself for the greater good. Could it also be possible that General Bolden has come to a point where he realized that his commanding officer’s orders will have a destructive effect on NASA?There is one thing for certain. There are very few within NASA or on the outside of NASA who know what is going on. What is also clear is that the inexperience of the executive branch is showing. NASA was not a major problem, but it has become one. It is not a problem to change direction. Many CEO’s have done so in the private sector. NASA does it routinely. But there is a science to change management. First, the leadership of any organization must decide if change is needed. Then, it must discuss, debate and decide what the end state should look like. Then it must decide the timelines and methods used to enact the change. Then it must execute it. Along the way are debates and discussions and most importantly, there is leadership. Communication from the top down to all the troops is required – to explain the reason for change, the purpose of the new organization and the value in executing the change. This is how change is done honorably, with respect to the loyal employees who have performed so well in the past. It is rare that a corporation will choose to completely dismantle an organization because that is considered a complete loss and makes no use of the resources and capital it has invested. But this change, one many of us on the inside could have embraced (just as we embraced the shift from Shuttle to Constellation), has been done so poorly with little regard to the employees and in a hostile manner to the contractors, it is difficult to say how much of any of it can be salvaged.Speaking solely on my own, but with many colleagues within the space program who share my feelings on this, Constellation is lost. The battle now moves to saving American Human Space Flight. If our political leadership can simply begin discussing the next moves forward, we the valuable space workers can begin moving forward and we will perform in amazing fashion as we always do. It is difficult for us to do that when we don’t know which way forward is. I have dedicated my life, since I was 11, to American Human Space Flight. It makes no difference to me if it is commercial or government, so long as it is successful. In spite of what the president may think, it is not he who makes it successful, it is not government or companies who make it successful, it is NOT our cooperation with foreign countries (they need us not the other way around), rather it IS the American people, their sweat, their passion, their freedom, their dedication and their Inspiration that has always brought prosperity and success to our country and our industry. Most of our presidents have understood that.