NASA's Most Important Asset, Gerry Griffin, 31 December 1996

Keith's note: The following commentary by Gerry Griffin is one of the most memorable things that has ever graced the pages of NASA Watch. It appeared when the Internet was young and I was blogging before what I was doing was called "blogging" on a website called NASARIFWatch (RIF = "Reduction In Force". Get familar with this activity, if you will.) Yes, it may be a bit dated. But it is also prescient and rather relevant now. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Charlie Bolden should take note of these cogent excerpts:

"The men and women of NASA and their contractors can do anything this country wants them to do. All it takes is leadership -- not management, leadership ... But, we have seen enough of the "in-your-face" style of leadership at the top, and it's high time for some leadership that can make the necessary changes with an understanding of, and respect for, NASA's most important asset -- its people."

Wisdom from another era.

All of us with space and aeronautics in our past and present have watched with interest over the past 25 years as the NASA landscape has changed dramatically. By any measure, it's been a real roller coaster. From being perhaps the most admired and closely followed publicly funded effort ever, NASA's last 25 years have been a series of upswings and downturns with little consistency and considerable instability

After the Apollo program, NASA's leadership fought hard to keep the space shuttle approved and funded while the field centers and their contractors designed and built a magnificent flying machine that pushed the state-of-the-art in space travel to a new level. When the space shuttle flew successfully in 1981, we enjoyed a brief period of renewed public interest in all of NASA's programs in space and aeronautics. However, as the space shuttle performed flawlessly over the next five years, public interest and congressional support for NASA was, at best, tepid. Many of us hoped that President Reagan's announcement of the initiation of the Space Station in his January 1984 state-of-the-union address would reenergize the public's interest in NASA, but it simply did not. The Challenger accident in 1986 brought NASA renewed attention, but wasn't the kind of attention we wanted or needed. In some measure, the Challenger accident even turned lukewarm support for NASA into downright hostility in some quarters of the public arena. But, any objective observer would conclude that NASA and its contractors did an outstanding job in recovering from the Challenger accident, and public interest was raised.

The first flight of the shuttle after Challenger was one of the most closely watched events in recent history, and the entire country was pulling hard for NASA to succeed. But it didn't take long after the successful return to flight before interest waned once again. At this time, much effort was going into the Space Station program, but a combination of events created a chaotic environment of start, stop, regroup, start, stop, and so on. A good portion of the blame for the chaos can be placed on NASA, but there also was plenty of meddling by outside forces, mostly political in nature, which added to the confusion. And to this day, the Space Station program still lacks a clear "end vision", and the future of the program is, at best, less than clear.

There's no doubt that this is a tough time for our country's finances, and NASA will never again have a run like it did in the '60s. But there is much NASA can do -- and should do -- for human space flight, space science, and aeronautics, and the agency deserves a better shot at doing it than it is getting. For sure, the struggles of NASA began a long time ago, but in the period since late in the Bush Administration, insensitive leadership at NASA has been devastating to the morale of the agency and its contractors. Clearly, significant changes in NASA are needed and, in some cases, long overdue. There's too many layers of management and supervision brought on in great part by two unrelated factors: an overreaction to the Challenger accident and an antiquated personnel promotion system. And yes, there are too many people in NASA who have retired in place and simply should go. These problems must be fixed, but they are problems that face every large organization as it ages. I submit you should fix these problems on a much more narrow basis than we have seen in recent years, and the changes should be carried out more with the skill of a surgeon than the finesse of a blacksmith.

The men and women of NASA and their contractors can do anything this country wants them to do. All it takes is leadership -- not management, leadership. Since the early '90s, in my judgment, the people in NASA and the public they serve, have not been served well by NASA's top leadership in Washington. NASA has been hindered greatly, I think, by ill-advised international alliances and fuzzy program direction. And when this is coupled with the lack of respect -- and sometimes downright hostility -- shown by agency leadership in Washington for the rank and file in the field who must carry out these programs, the situation has been made even worse. Oh yes, NASA's top leadership in Washington says many of the right words when the cameras are running on the occasion of an astronaut's return to Earth or a new picture being received from Jupiter, but it's what they are doing when the cameras are off that worry me.

I served in senior positions at three NASA centers and Headquarters, and my network of contacts is still pretty extensive. My NASA comm circuits have been active recently, and the message isn't good. As I implied earlier, I believe the heart and soul of NASA are its people -- not its facilities, its challenging programs, or all of the frantic activities going on "inside the beltway" in Washington, D.C. And, it's not just the honchos that matter. Sure, we need good senior people in key positions, but in my opinion, it's GS-7s through GS-14s at NASA's field centers (and their counterparts in industry) who have and will continue to make the U.S. space and aeronautics programs tick. And, for the first time in my more than 30 years of connection with NASA, the tom-toms are telling me that many of the low- and mid-level people in NASA and their contractors are reaching the end of their ropes. Much of this, I'm told, is due to an insensitive, unfriendly, and disrespectful air that emanates from the highest floor at NASA Headquarters. The common view expressed is that the fun has gone out of the business and that younger people simply can't envision spending their next 10 to 20 years in the present environment. I believe that if we lose the unwavering commitment of a significant number of the low- and mid-level people, NASA will be in even deeper trouble than we see it in today.

All I've said here doesn't mean that NASA and their contractors will escape more reductions in personnel. For sure, they will not, and the U.S. space team will have to learn how to carry out its business in a much different manner. That's okay! But, we have seen enough of the "in-your-face" style of leadership at the top, and it's high time for some leadership that can make the necessary changes with an understanding of, and respect for, NASA's most important asset -- its people.

Gerald D. Griffin was director of the Johnson Space Center from August 8, 1982 to January 14, 1988. He is a founder of the NASA Alumni League, a former president, and is now a director.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on February 25, 2010 11:56 PM.

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