Petty Politics and Uncoordinated Outreach at NASA

Editor's note: This letter (500 KB PDF) was written by a NASA subcontractor to JSC management in February 2007 regarding experiences on Constellation outreach and public relations.

Multiple NASA sources have authenticated this document - yet I have deleted information that would easily identify the author. This letter has been making the rounds, via faxed photocopies of photocopies, so I am certain it won't be that heard for someone to identify the author if they have a mind to do so. I just do not want to make it easier for that to happen than I need to. The reason: people who speak out at NASA often find future work prospects suddenly evaporating. Besides, it is the content of this letter that is important, not the identity of its author.

I find myself in near total agreement with the opinions expressed by the author with regard to the dysfunctional way NASA conducts public affairs and outreach. As to the problems the agency has in carrying such activities out, the author describes them perfectly. The author also offers some intelligent analysis and solutions that NASA would do well to consider.

Several years ago, something called "One NASA" appeared on everyone's to do list at NASA. It sounded great - for about 10 seconds - until you realized what it actually called for: the agency acting as one cohesive, integrated entity with all people and organizations helping one another so as to speak with a unified voice. In other words, everyone was supposed to put aside parochial issues and work for the common good.

We all know that NASA is utterly incapable of doing this - especially when it comes to PAO and outreach. Headquarters directorates, programs, and agency field centers all have their own outreach efforts (and budgets) over which PAO or Headquarters (the 9th floor) itself has little or no oversight. And none of these things are ever integrated properly with other projects and programs resulting in needless conflicts and duplications.

And of course, everyone has their little petty political games to play so as to posture themselves, their project, and their field center in a position so as to benefit the most and/or thwart others from doing so. This letter outlines a classic example of how NASA simply cannot get out of its own way. Marsha Ivin's behavior is utterly unprofessional and inexcusable.

I went back and forth as to whether I should post this. I eventually decided that the document already had a wide distribution. But much more importantly, I feel that the author has written some important things that need to be heard. Will posting this make the agency and some people who work there look bad? I guess so. But so long as these problems are allowed to fester unattended - things will only get worse.

The VSE will call upon every resource - and every person - at NASA to contribute together as a team. The activities described in this letter are anything but teamwork.

To be certain, there are people at PAO and Strategic Communications at NASA HQ who are trying to do the right thing and are addressing some of these lingering issues. But if, in the end, NASA is incapable of moving beyond the petty antics and confused messages that are outlined in this letter, the VSE will never result in one single piece of functional hardware.

Comments? Send them to nasawatch@reston.com. Your Comments thus far:


The "letter" has brought up a topic of great importance--core competencies. It is an issue throughout the agency - putting civil servants in positions just because they need/want a job. They actually put them in jobs of outreach, Public Affairs, and communication because they think anyone can do that type work. The idea that anyone can communicate or do outreach is just absurd. Communication professionals go to school to learn about what works and what doesn't. When you put a person not formally trained in communication into a position to lead communication, well, you get exactly what the letter addressed. And since these people do not have the academic training to do the right thing, they engage in coercion, manipulation, and other ineffective and outdated tactics (Peter Principle).

If you really want to know what is going on with field center outreach, I challenge you to call all the field centers and find out who is leading the communication efforts. Do they hold degrees in communication, journalism, or marketing? My "guess" is that many do not. They were merely placed in those jobs. THIS is why NASA's can't communicate the importance of the Vision.

As for HQ, I think they are working very hard to get real communication professionals together to solve problems, but it'll never work until the field centers have communication professionals leading those efforts. HQ is spinning its wheels. Failure to recognize that core competencies and special skills mean something - and are needed - is just plain stupid.


I am so pleased that this letter was sent for many reasons. I am afraid its been on many of our minds for many years-but it took an excellent communicator to communicate just what is wrong.

First, while this letter is unfortunate for Marcia Ivins, she has ruined careers of some great people and has been costing the US taxpayers millions of dollars for years. She and her Integration/Operations friends in ISS used similar tactics in establishing their empire and the processes in that technical area in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then they were called the henhouse mafia.

And why would someone with no background in communications be put in charge of communications in Constellation...because they were trying to get her out of the technical areas where she was causing problems by trying her same tactics. But now they have someone new in the Constellation communications area, who similarly has no background in Communications but who is a research scientist. Maybe she'll figure it out?

Are the activities going on in Constellation of such little consequence that we place people with no relevant experience in these areas and many others?

Unfortunately, Marcia and the problems associated with communications and public interfaces are just the tip of the iceberg. Take a look across the management of all of Constellation. Another of Marcia's mafia, also in Constellation, is now running configuration management-an area she has no knowledge of-but then when she set up Integration/Operations for ISS she had no knowledge there either. And others running the show - Progam Manager Jeff Hanley at a budget meeting in DC a couple weeks ago annouced proudly that everything he knew about program management he learned in the last nine months from the Program Control Manager who is now retiring, one of the Marine mafia that came in with Will Trafton and Randy Brinkley and who screwed up ISS so badly for so many years.

The person likely to succeed him-ran the Space and Life Sciences Directorate into the ground over the last seven years until they got rid of him from that job-so why not let him have a go at Constellation? When these senior ranking people screw up so badly, why don't they demote them and put them in a place where they can't continue to do harm. And while Jeff Hanley is a nice guy, why are we trusting the future of the US human space program to someone who has no prior program or project management experience? Look at many of the others running Constellation. A former flight director who had never worked any form of systems management or hardware integration now heading up integration. A Deputy just named to the lunar lander office who has no history in NASA and no history in any kind of R&D. And why are they staffing up a lander office years before money becomes available to do anything worthwhile?

At one time, program management was done by small core teams who handled requirements, budgets and schedules. The people selected to work program management had to have experienced and be knowledgeable about the technical areas, and they made sure to get a mix from across the technical areas; but the people implementing the program at the technical level were the technical people from the line organizations. That was the subsystem manager process. The idea that a bunch of flight directors from mission ops, or astronauts no longer able or needed to fly, or others with no technical experience beyond another program (ISS), or people with no relevant experience at all, are going to figure out how to get a Constellation Program flying, is just stupid. Thats when the contractors move in and start sucking the budget dry until there is none left - as in ISS.

Mr. Griffin, in his responses to employees, likes to say that they are competing these positions and selecting the best people possible. But most of these individuals have been moved in without any competition. And even in most competitive placements the person they are going to select is known well in advance. Incompetents selecting more incompetents.

Unfortunately the incompetent bureacracy, as said in the letter, is perpetuating itself down to the individual incompetents.

The space program is a worthy human endeavor, but the Constellation Program at JSC is a good example of how NASA management has gone wrong. I hope it can be fixed but after years of watching similar shenanigans in ISS, I don't expect the program to recover, and in the case of Constellation, I am afraid its DOA. And we may not get another chance.


This woman is easily the nastiest I dealt with in over 20 years in mission operations. She is not fit to represent NASA anywhere!


As one of your commenters said, "FINALLY! Someone calls out Marsha Ivins for what she is."

Finally, indeed! Marsha isn't the only one who displays this behavior, but she is the current poster child, since Jay Greene (her mentor) has retired. Want to know what I did when I learned that Marsha was to be (Constellation Program Office Manager) Jeff Hanley's special assistant? I quit. Turned in my resignation and walked away from NASA and JSC. If Hanley and Griffin have the monumental bad judgement to put Marsha in a place with that kind of power and lack of accountability, the Constellation Program is doomed.


Hi there,

Long-time reader, first-time writer. An excellent article. Your decision to post the letter was the right one.

One of the more disturbing things talked about in the letter was Marsha Ivins' pitiful dismissal of Tom Hanks as a "fake astronaut". I literally did a double take at my monitor.

Through his various tv and movie projects like "Apollo 13", ''From the Earth to the Moon", and "Magnificent Desolation", Hanks has proven an eloquent advocate for the cause of space exploration. I would've thought having a double Oscar winner in your corner would be seen as a good thing.

I was active in space advocacy (specifically the Mars Society) for several years, and currently work in telecom. After reading Ivins' remarks, I wonder how many others share her xenophobia and how many potentially lucrative partnerships with space advocate groups and non-space industries are being stillborn?


Of all the comments posted, I agree with this one the most, but I would take it much further:

There is much of value in this letter, especially with regard to NASA selling the VSE to the public, yet I think the author is missing an important point. When he looks for a well-articulated rationale for the VSE, part of the reason he isn't finding it is that the real rationale is in fact that "great nations explore." He dismisses this as unacceptable. He seems to be looking for a business case, like why XYZ Corporation should build a widget factory. Not only is there no business case for the VSE (NASA spends wealth, it doesn't generate it), but even if there were, taxpayers wouldn't really care. There's no business case for Social Security either, yet people are perfectly willing to have 15.3% of every paycheck go to fund it.

You want to make a case to Joe Taxpayer as to why his taxes should support human space exploration? Here you go: it's the greatest death-defying stunt in the history of mankind, bigger than NASCAR, bigger than the NFL, orders of magnitude beyond Evel Knievel or the X-Games. When we landed on the Moon in 1969, other nations held their breaths in awe. It was so unbelievable, many in fact do not believe it. If we land on Mars, every other country will know that China couldn't do it, Russia couldn't do it, the Europeans couldn't do it - only Number One could do it. And it doesn't cost that much, relatively speaking. If you need a more highfalutin' way to say it to the Starbucks demographic, it represents a radical expansion of human potential. Yes, "great nations explore". Most people respond to this, the real rationale.

If there is any business case to be made for manned space exploration, it lies far in the future. Sure, NASA is a dysfunctional organization. It's organized for failure. It has to pretend to be a business in order to attract enough political support to survive, but what it really is, or should be in my opinion, is mankind's long-term insurance policy. At some point, Mother Earth is gonna get too crowded, or polluted, or otherwise messed up and humans are going to need to have to ability to disperse to other planets to sustain the species. There's not a short-term business case for that objective.

I've always felt that the U.S. manned space exploration program should be segregated in its own government agency, and that other, unmanned satellite exploration and space science programs in another. The way the Government operates, having both programs in the same agency competing for the same funding means that one program alternatively starves the other in competition for the limited NASA budget, depending on the priorities of the current Administration, whether Republican or Democrat. Other Federal agencies, including DoD and DoC (NOAA), have space operations. Why not create one more so that each can focus on its mission?


FINALLY! Someone calls out Marsha Ivins for what she is. Another indication of the Administrator's inability to be a good judge of character. He abandoned his friends who used to protect him. Then he surrounded himself with a number of incompetent, self-serving individuals who told him what he wanted to hear, not what he needs to hear. Its unfortunate that the really great people at NASA, who lack only for leadership,are tainted by the ineptitudeof the few.


Keith: Like the excellent findings in the Aldridge Commission's Report on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, the recommendations for VSE strategic communication generated from The Balance Point Process will likely be ignored. Both require but have yet to obtain buy-in from the Administrator, White House and Congress. NASA's Exploration Systems Architecture ignored many Aldridge Commission guidelines. In developing the unsustainable Ares family of rockets, Constellation will continue to devour human spaceflight budgets for years to come. NASA will have money to fly a few astronauts every year and do little else. Like the Shuttle and the Station, NASA spaceflight programs quickly become ends in and of themselves for the Agency and contractors.


NASA Internal email: Proposal by NASA Astronaut Marsha Ivins for a TV Special on Project Constellation and Exploration

"I also understand that they should have access to a lot of stuff but do not get free reign to dig around in places we don't want them digging, and again since I have total control over the story line since there are only 2 of us writing it, we can guide the story."


Reading this letter, I am all but disgusted further with some of the way things are at NASA. It's bad enough that the common population (as I will call it) has very little to no knowledge of what goes on within NASA, or what NASA is accomplishing, or what the future may bring that is potentially good and possible these days since the media seems to focus on the disasters, and the outrageous.

And then there is this sanctimonious 'astronaut' that makes NASA look BAD - again - Marsha Ivins. For one thing, Marsha Ivins must go IF what is catalogued here is at all true. She seemingly sets a very poor example of a NASA employee, and as an astronaut as well (oh they need that like the proverbial hole in the skull), and therefore she should be immediately quarantined and sent back to JSC to either resume some sort of harmless engineering duties that are beneficial to her pals in CB/JSC/NASA and the taxpayer, or, retire from the civil service and go into the real world (civilian/commercial) and get a real job instead of acting like the prima-dona clown she seems to come across in this letter. In true life, since I did back in the early 90's work in DF at JSC, as a contractor, I personally witnessed the way she treated the contractors, and it was like the way the author of this letter described the way he/she was treated - like crap. No surprise since she was one of -if not the servant of George Abbey for a time - and therefore had some real honest-to-goodness mentoring that seems to have handsomely paid off. A buffoon and now a buffoon-ette. Thanks Marsha - thanks a lot!!

And as for NASA Public Affairs; if this organization does not get their act fully together, and real-real soon, they are going to be in good part to blame for the failure of NASA to get any form public recognition and/or support for 'Constellation'. This ultimately will cause heads of congress (forget the current president - he has his head buried in the sand in regards to NASA - he did that when he was governor of Texas) to ignore (as they do a great deal already) and look the other way because they will have sensed that it - that 'it' being NASA, 'it' being EXPLORATION, 'it' being ALL THE REST that NASA has - oops - no - HAD come to symbolize over the years means little to nothing to the present public, as it seems to already mean little to nothing to the politicians on Capitol Hill. NASA has fallen into the bureaucratic black hole from hell, and it's going to take a monumental change to get them out of it. In the end, Public Affairs at NASA desperately needs an enema - period. It's not rocket science is it?

This is a shame, because the true heroes; those like the Wayne Hales, the Milt Heflin's, the Mike Coats, present and present launch and flight controllers, orbiter, ET, and SRB engineers and technicians, and all the rest of the real workers within NASA (civil servants and contractor) - could be well forgotten, and their hard and heart-felt work all be in vain because of those few in the overall organization, and on Capitol Hill that have their own personal agendas to meet, and have forsaken their fellow workers, and the Unites States citizens, in what could be, and would be, the greatest adventures in human history.


In CONFIDENCE, I state: I read with avid interest the letter written by a contractor to NASA JSC.

I, too, was a "disposable" consultant to one of the NASA centers. I have an MBA in marketing and 20 years experience in industry, associations and government.I almost can't believe how close this letter describes my own experience.Now I realize I am not alone and that I can recapture my self-esteem, which was damaged by gold badges who negated best practices and collaborative strategies for improved Agency-wide outreach (in view of competitive center mentalities).This is truly an unhealthy climate and phenomenally difficult to alter.

And I aspired to work for NASA!I still believe in the inherent good that can be achieved.Without a government entity solely devoted to science and engineering, America will lose it's grasp on continuous, objective technology development.And if we lose that world leadership, citizens will be truly sorry.


how many people are funded to build CEV crew module mockups?

  • GRC
  • Goddard
  • Andrews Space
  • JSC ?

am i mistaken in thinking this is a redundant effort? if it is, what other concurrent/redundant efforts are going on?


It was interesting to read the letter, and some of the points made are valid. However, criticizing NASA is like shooting fish in a barrel. There are 3 topics on which everyone thinks he or she is an expert: sex, politics and NASA. Nevertheless, the letter was not much better than the aspects of NASA it criticizes and could equally have been written by some of the NASA people, pro or con VSE, that it describes. I guess it takes one to know one. There actually are good, valid reasons for establishing a lunar colony, and Mike Griffin has articulated them clearly in many different places. Unfortunately, Constellation has inherited the old space station crowd, who gave us the expensive tin can that goes nowhere, 30 years too late, 30 billion $ over budget, and 30 deg of inclination too high. The problem with NASA is not that they have the wrong process in place. The problem with NASA, as with the letter's author, is that it is an organization built around process, not around product. Mike's been trying to change that, and deserves all the support he can get. We could all do without self-serving yahoos writing letters about things they don't understand. BTW, I don't work for NASA or any aerospace industry and have nothing to buy or sell.


There is much of value in this letter, especially with regard to NASA selling the VSE to the public, yet I think the author is missing an important point. When he looks for a well-articulated rationale for the VSE, part of the reason he isn't finding it is that the real rationale is in fact that "great nations explore." He dismisses this as unacceptable. He seems to be looking for a business case, like why XYZ Corporation should build a widget factory. Not only is there no business case for the VSE (NASA spends wealth, it doesn't generate it), but even if there were, taxpayers wouldn't really care. There's no business case for Social Security either, yet people are perfectly willing to have 15.3% of every paycheck go to fund it.

You want to make a case to Joe Taxpayer as to why his taxes should support human space exploration? Here you go: it's the greatest death-defying stunt in the history of mankind, bigger than NASCAR, bigger than the NFL, orders of magnitude beyond Evel Knievel or the X-Games. When we landed on the Moon in 1969, other nations held their breaths in awe. It was so unbelievable, many in fact do not believe it. If we land on Mars, every other country will know that China couldn't do it, Russia couldn't do it, the Europeans couldn't do it - only Number One could do it. And it doesn't cost that much, relatively speaking. If you need a more highfalutin' way to say it to the Starbucks demographic, it represents a radical expansion of human potential. Yes, "great nations explore". Most people respond to this, the real rationale.



Dear Nasawatch

The Article today 'Petty Politics' was excellent. I hope the person who sent the letter does not get his knuckles rapped. That is exactly what NASA needs. They need to promote the reasons for why and not just when it is going to happen. All his points are valid.

I am a UK citizen but have an interest in the space program and as you have pointed out many times they need to co-ordinate their media responses. They could save money and a clear vision would be expressed. Once that happens then more people will know that NASA is about and what they are doing and then it just may be bit easer to get some more support and therefore more money.

Well done for printing it. Let's hope it starts a chain reaction for some action.


You do realize that there are plenty of NASA-affiliated workers who think the whole VSE is a waste of time, don't you? If we don't believe in it, why should anyone else? I say let industry handle space travel, except for scientific work that would benefit the nation but has little appeal to industry. Why should the government perform functions that private companies are capable of doing?


Wow. Now *that* was a fascinating read. What do you think will be the response of NASA? I expect silence, unfortunately. I wanted to stand up and applaud after reading this.

There is so much potential at NASA, so much that could be done. Is it conceivable that this gentleman's letter could splash cold water on the face of NASA and wake them up? Will Ivins resign, be publicly supported by Griffin, or somewhere in between?

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on May 30, 2007 5:50 PM.

Top Down Won't Work for VSE was the previous entry in this blog.

Upcoming Awards at JSC: Marsha Ivins is the next entry in this blog.

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