Thursday, April 30, 2009

NASA Adrift

As a veteran of many a bank mergers and transition where changes in strategy, direction, vision, personnel and operations were the norm I can relate to what NASA is feeling right now as a change in Presidential and organizational leadership has created that sense of being temporarily adrift. It is natural for an organization and its people to feel lost during major change even though the business direction seemingly goes on as usual until further notice, but is it also human nature to want continuity in purpose, clarity and confirmation that the work being done today will have value tomorrow and that those involved also have a level of job security. Employees, vendors, contractors and others dependent on the program all seek the same surety that their efforts will not be in vain.

As we all know change brings stress to an organization and without solid leadership, a sound direction and strategy, and the voices of leaders asserting that the current direction is and will be the right one the organizational foundation begins to crack. Left in that state for too long and the cracks will spread creating additional problems at every level and function within the organization. Nothing is immune to human nature when it is under stress. That stress creates its own problems such as a lack of focus, strategic paralysis, rumors, errors, reduced productivity and drain of talent as key resources search out a more stable environment.

These "cracks" are becoming more evident. Already we've seen hints at changes in strategy such as forgoing a moon base in favor of a direct Mars launch, capsule downsizing to accommodate fewer astronauts to meet vehicle weight requirements and all of this at a time where stable leadership and political support from the top is absent.

As I’ve written previously there is no magic answer as to where to look for NASA’s next leader. There have been many good choices suggested and a few not so good names, but the time has come to put an end to the uncertainty and appoint a new leader to NASA. That we are one-hundred days and counting into a new administration and while the shuttle retirement was listed as one of the top issues that needed immediate attention there is no leader and NASA and its employees and contractors have been left to founder.

There are questions about President Obama’s commitment to the space program. We can only hope that the hesitation in selecting a new NASA leader is due to wanting the right person with the right vision. The President offered conflicting views about the space program during and after the campaign - on one hand asserting “I’m a space guy” and on the other talking about cuts in the program “Why would I send people into space when there are people here that can’t read”, but then Florida became important in the elections and he promised money for space. As time drags on the second Obama may be the real one – the economic woes are providing perfect cover to cut select government programs while the rest balloons so high we could almost ride a stack of dollars into the sky. We have thrown away trillions at failing companies and comparatively pennies at NASA. We gave more to the car companies to keep them afloat for a few months than NASA’s entire budget and I’ve yet to see the same technical return.

Politics does strange things in Washington. Kudos to Sen. Bill Nelson for getting NASA additional money in the budget to (potentially) keep the shuttle flying (there are some “ifs” attached to that money and some hurdles to clear), but the change in administrations that triggers changes in departmental leadership and direction isn’t a good thing. It has the habit of smothering a current strategy or proposing a new direction and that in an area as complex as space exploration will in the end slow progress. A new leader and new vision work when the vision is clear, crisp and sustainable over the long-term. Our political leaders have consistently let NASA down by talking a good game, but not walking the walk when it came to political and financial support. A key reason we will be caught again (first post-Apollo and now post-Shuttle) without a manned space capability is the lack of support of our political leaders to support a long-term vision for manned space exploration.

Perhaps now is President Obama’s time to make NASA apolitical. Establish a leader and a succession plan that grows leaders from within the organization and offers continuity similar to what is done in the business world. NASA’s role demands that level of leadership, knowledge and consistency. I would personally liked to have seen Shana Dale take the reigns at NASA and become the first female administrator. Her experience as Deputy Administrator positioned her well to lead the team and would have been a great first-step towards that goal. We will now face a new leader with a steep learning curve and likely a top-to-bottom review of everything NASA has in progress. Since that is going to be the charge let’s get started. Mr. President, appoint a NASA leader now.