NASA Watch Feedback: The Shape Of Things to Come

NASA throttles up for change as end of shuttle era nears, Orlando Sentinel

"The initial target was to shrink Constellation's budget for operations and sustaining engineering to 60 percent of what it cost the shuttle program in 2007. NASA and its shuttle contractors already have crunched the resulting work-force numbers, but the final totals haven't been decided on. Some estimates have projected that a third of KSC's current workers could be affected."

Editor's note: Space journalist Jim Oberg appeared on MSNBC today and made some very cogent points about the factors that may have led up to the shooting at JSC - things that don't seem to get mentioned at NASA press conferences. Right now many at NASA are being asked "to do more with less". At some point this means people at NASA contractors loose their jobs. At present, layoffs (when they happen at NASA) are small and focused. Imagine what will happen as the Shuttle program is turned off. Thousands of contractor employees at JSC, KSC, MSFC and elsewhere will be laid off. NASA will dispute this, but they can never provide the data needed to back up their claim.

As Oberg notes NASA has an exceptionally motivated work force. People just love their jobs. Many, as David Beverly's wife put it, feel that their job is "their calling". When these layoffs start to happen there are going to be a lot of people who are not happy about leaving. Given that NASA is terrified of even discussing the topic and won't dare put a number on eventual layoffs, a lot of people are going to feel like they got the shaft when the inevitable happens.

I sincerly hope someone at NASA is looking at this sad event at JSC and taking instruction from it to prepare for future layoffs at the agency. People under stress can do unthinkable things. The prospect of losing a job you dearly love can cause a lot of a lot of stress - stress that needs - and will eventually find - an outlet.

Oberg will also be appearing on "Weekend Today" at 8 am EDT Sunday on NBC.

Interview with Jim Oberg 21 April 2007, MSNBC (rough transcript)

Question regarding NASA information just provided.

"But all the discussions I've heard so far have missed, I think, the major themes that I have learned from people who knew Mr. Beverly, that there were tremendous budget pressures, cutbacks of his budgets, and he had to 'do more with less' -- that was the phrase that he would use in conversation with friends and colleagues. And it was depressing him -- because he was under pressure clearly to do more with less, which is -- the English of which is, get rid of some people...."

"The contractor groups are very often just labor plantations for various kinds of specialty jobs that people need to staff up and then staff down, then go work for someone else. The contract workers often have minimal if any benefits, medical or retirement benefits -- but they are people who want to work in space [program], they are enthusiastic about space.

"And they realize that unlike most of the jobs you get laid off from, where you can use your skills in some other industry or profession, in space this is the only game in town.

Question regarding purchase of gun.

"He bought that the day he printed out his performance report -- the evaluation message. Performance evaluations can be used for helping getting people to improve their performance, and they can also be used -- from my own personal experience and the people around me in my 22 years working at the center, mostly as a contractor -- they can also be used as an excuse for winnowing out employees, especially older employees, that need to go for other reasons."

Question regarding Beverly's heroism

"Absolutely -- what we know about Dave, from people who knew him, they universally considered him to be an outstanding human being, and a good engineer -- a top flight engineer dedicated to his work, to his co-workers, decent. And that apparently is -- that comes back to what I mentioned earlier, that something was gnawing at Dave, that I have learned from people close to him, and that was the need to do more with less.

"So that's not been mentioned at the press conference, I wish I were there because I'd ask it."

Comments? Send them to

Your comments thus far:

Keith, In my email I sent to you 4/14/07, I wrote:

I would appreciate it if you would not publish this as I have already experienced enough retaliation, workplace violence, ostracization and other from NASA management.

On 4/20/07,shootings occurred at JSC within theexact same organization and building that I was referring to in my 4/14/07 email.This organization has had management problems including: workplace violence, abuse of authority,work being cancelled due to numeroussafety violations, slandering employees, making knowingly false statements about employees in order to justify unethical management practices, creating memos to employees directing them to not identify flight safety concerns, and a very long list of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement. The problems within this organization have been made known to the Office of Inspector General, the Office of Special Counsel, both the former and current NASA Administrators, the Ombudsman office, the JSCEmployee Assistance Program, the JSC Human Resources Office, the Union, and several U.S. Senators. Even though the evidencethat there aresignificant organizational and management problems within this group isundeniable, thebroken philosophy of business being usedthere remains in tact.

As many have said, David was a good guy, and we all enjoyed working with him. He was someone we all respected. Put ina different work environment, the actions that Bill took would not have occurred. The word now is that no one is at fault, and that this is just an aberration. This is not an aberration. (period) Instead, it is anothermanifestation of the broken culture that exists within NASA andspecifically within this particular organization. Bill has beenportrayedby many in a way that is not completely true throughout this episode. Yes,Bill was completely wrong in his actions and had no right to take David's life. But, if we don't learn anythingfrom this, then little will be gained. Making the claim thatthere is no fault other than on the part of Bill and that this is an anomaly or aberration issimply an attempt by troubled NASA organizations to deflect theglaring truth thattheir methods arethe cause of this incident. When a work environment antagonizes its workersto the point that they want to hurt themselves and the others around them, that environment isindesperate needof change.

The dynamics of this are not really all that hard to understand. Bill, as has been observed, was dedicated to his work and it was a very large part of what created his self esteem and self worth. When that is threatened or taken away from him, that is the same as taking his life from him. Taking a persons life from them will be met with strongopposition as we have seen. NASA needs employees that are dedicated and are willing to sink their lives into our space program. But, methods used by NASA managers,such as retaliation,are incompatible with sustainingthe passion ofa devoted and dedicated workforce. Thesame cycle repeats itself within NASA and is very prevalent within the organization where this occurred. A person will work onsome task for a number of years and become an expertin that field.At some point, it is inevitable; there will be a difference of opinion between the technical expert and the office manager wherethis person resides. If the technical expert has strong opinions about this and challenges the office manager,office managers at NASA then employ prohibited personnel practices to stifle dissenting opinions and maintain control of their organization. This interaction leaves our nation with a space program that is limit by the skill level and lack of vision of middle management bureaucracy. Engineers and Scientists that are knowledgeable in their field 'are' going to have strong opinions. When our friends and neighbors are getting ready to fly in a spacecraft that has known, but rectifiable defects, people are going to speak up. NASA technical leaders are shown that if they challenge office managers, their careers will be ended. This is the cycle of retaliation that has been reported by the CAIB andothers, and is limiting the success of our space program. Misplaced technical authority is the root cause of this problem.

Of course, if 'any' of the NASA/ federal appeal routes, or employee help resourcesfunctioned the way they are claimed to, people like Bill would have some method to find solutions for the problems they are facing. But, unfortunately, all of the claimed avenues for employees to combat workplace injustice are controlled by the exact same management structure that creates and maintains the problemsbeing faced. As has been observed with the Office of Inspector General, instead of being an independentwatchdog to prevent waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement, the OIG operates in collusion with troubled NASA managers in assisting them in these actions. The OIG was giveninformation about the history of workplace violence within this organization as well as other well documented issues needing to be addressed there.But, the OIGelected to not challenge the management responible.The same ineffectiveness can also beshownforevery and all other appeal route available to NASA employees. This defines the word dysfunctional.And obviously, the organization that David and Bill worked within was beyond dysfunctional.

I hope that David and Bill's lives were not lost in vain. Our hope is that this tragic event will dramatically show how wrong our ways of conducting our nation's space program are.

If you wantto publish this, you may do so. If not,consider what caused this to happen, and think how realistic it is thatNASA methods of conducting businessare not reponsible for this.

The feedback this morning hits the NASA employment double standard on its ugly head. I'm sure there will be a response along the lines of, "NASA values its contract teammates and urges them to come forward with any concerns they may have, etc." In public, there will be stagey surprise. (Contractors are treated like social diseases? We had no idea!) In private, there will be quiet profanity around a table of grim-faced civil servant managers. (Find them. Now.) When the inevitable missive appears, I hope no one is fooled. The initial response will be concern and intense head-nodding. In six months to a year, that person's job will be restructured, and he or she will be on a bullet train out of NASA. For all the right reasons, of course.

There are outstanding people in both worlds. I also realize that things may be different outside of the area where I work, yet I hear these same stories throughout the agency. Too often NASA and its contractors have about the same chemistry as roadkill and hot asphalt.

My family thanks you for keeping this anonymous.

Not surprising that NASA's "family" raised the stress level of a 15 year contract engineerand pushed him over the edge with tragic results.

NASA is controlled by "bean counters", not the Engineers or technical employees that produce and operate the Space Hardware. Bean counters contribute little to the Space Program, their main interest is protecting these little domains. Bean counters control the facilities,and contractors. They will actually interrupt or stop an engineering test to accommodate their own schedules. Theycontrol this world with an incestuous relationship with each other. Nepotism is also a factor by controlling some NASA jobs.

Contractors are required to document Safety and Health problems via Close Call Reports but then NASA fails to properly record all of them. They disappear from the real world. Contractors are then chastised. One NASA manager who was responsible for Safety and Health issues liked to scream at contractors in the halls for reporting these issues. His favorite line was "I AM NASA!" Intimidated contractors, fearing their job loss said nothing.

Many NASA managers leave the buildings and are gone for long periods of time during normal working hours. They have "flexible" working hours and can work or not work as they wish.

Recent events at NASA JSC should be a terrible "heads-up" for this agency to clean its own house and remove incompetent managers. They need to break tradition and fire the bad ones but they won't. After 22 Years at JSC...

In spite of my better judgment, I feel compelled to weigh in on the recent events at JSC. I feel tremendous sympathy for the victim of this violent act and would never wish that upon anybody, no matter the circumstances. Yet at the same time, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of understanding some of the dynamics that might push someone over the edge.

Is there a caste system at NASA? Definitely. This would be hard enough to stomach if it were based on any logical factors, such as education, ability, dedication, hard work, or years of experience. But the only factor that drives the caste system is the color of one's badge gold for civil servant, blue for contractor.

In the department I support, the civil servants make approximately double what I make as a contractor. (How do I know what they make? Easy. Their GS levels are common knowledge.) Do they have more education? No. In fact, we have comparable degrees. Do they have an advanced degree? No. Do they have more years of experience? No. Do they work harder? Definitely not. In some cases, the real question is do they work at all, and sometimes, that's debatable.

In fact, here's an interesting dynamic. Part of the reason these civil servants are so highly paid is that they supposedly "supervise" people, meaning the contractors that were brought in to do the work these civil servants either couldn't, or wouldn't, do. Then, if the requirements get too much, these civil servants simply pass along the added assignments to the nearest contractor and pat themselves on the back for "doing more with less."

And if that weren't bad enough, the civil servants regularly receive rewards and kudos for work done by others. In fact, I have personally completed projects in my department with little or no supervision, guidance or help from my civil servant counterpart, only to see that same civil servant receive a nice cash bonus for my work. However, if something goes wrong, it is always the contractor who gets fired or reprimanded. So in short, we contractors get none of the carrots, but all of the sticks. People will say I'm exaggerating, but the contractors out there know what I'm talking about.

And here's something I can back up with facts and figures. At the NASA center I support, there is a world-class daycare facility with great rates, a low child-to-teacher ratio, and a long waiting list. They will tell you that contractors can make use of the facility, but here's the catch. The children of a contractor can get on that waiting list. But (and here's where it gets interesting) if any civil servant comes along and wants THEIR child or grandchild on that list, they move to the front of the line, ahead of the contractor, no matter how long the contractor has been waiting. This means that a contractor can literally be waiting a year to get decent, affordable care for their child. And in one smooth move, a civil servant can cut right to the front of the line. How can someone with the wrong color of badge not be discouraged by this? As for me, my children never made it to the front of the line, so now I pay more for less at an off-site daycare facility that's more expensive and less convenient.

Also on-site at our center, there's a world-class health club. Until a few years ago, contractors weren't even allowed to set foot in the facility, except to clean it. A couple of years ago, they changed the policy, but here's another catch. Civil servants can use the facility for free. Their families can use it for free.Contractors must pay $180 a year. That's hard to stomach, especially when the NASA civil servants make more money, have nearly unlimited job security, and benefits I only dream of. Meanwhile, contractors are told we're lucky to be let in the facility at all.

Whenever these discrepancies are brought up, NASA management says that our companies (meaning the "real" employers of the contractors) offer "different" benefits and are free to offer childcare, health club memberships or what-not. But the truth is, they don't. Why? Because low-bidding is the name of the game, and benefits are among the first things to be cut. So every day, I sit across the table from people who make double the money I do, get perks I only dream of, and have a false sense of entitlement that's truly mind-boggling. Meanwhile, there's a whole other group ofpeople who are left to survive on leftovers while doing thevast majority of the work.

Of course, I must also state that there are some truly terrific, hard-working people who work for NASA, both civil servants and contractors. But the system is definitely broken when one side gets all the perks, while the other side gets told they're just "lucky to have a job," only to be shuffled out when the system has squeezed everything it can from them.

Please forgive the anonymous email, but I am certain to lose my job if anyone identifies me as the author of this correspondence. And since I have a family to support, I can't take that risk.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on April 23, 2007 10:08 PM.

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