Bridging cultures to serve a greater goal is extremely hard. NASA has three dominant cultures, human spaceflight (HSF), engineering and science, which must be integrated to achieve the grand objective of returning humans to the moon and going on to Mars. In the moon to Mars (M2M) Architecture document, NASA clearly explains the purpose of these extraordinary efforts: to conduct world-class science, to establish a national posture that will affect humanity’s future and to inspire current and future generations.

In my 50 year career, I’ve seen the space world from many different vantage points: National Lab, startup venture, consultant, center director of NASA Ames, peer-reviewed journal editor and adjunct professor at Stanford. These experiences have exposed me to the strengths and weaknesses of all three cultures and given me some insights on how they must be blended to explore other worlds.


As the founder of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, I learned firsthand that getting disparate scientists, including geologists, astronomers and biologists to work together can be challenging. The very first requirement was developing a common language to bridge the chasms among minerals, parsecs and DNA, for example. Alongside a greater understanding of the other disciplines came an absolute need to be in the same room at the same time. Exchanging documents and papers is fine, but only after the various science groups, led by a highly respected scientist who values interdisciplinary work, have first reached a consensus. Science is a grassroots endeavor where all must be heard, a consensus reached after extended debate and then an ongoing reexamination as new data emerges. Such is true as well for developing M2M science objectives.


In 1999, two NASA Mars missions disappeared. As a result of these failures, I was asked to go to NASA HQs and fix the mess. Upon my arrival, I found that at least five different individuals claimed leadership of the existing Mars program. My first duty was to clarify that I would be in charge as the first-ever Mars Program Director. Today’s program suffers a similar problem: Those of us observing Artemis and M2M cannot identify the overall leader. This must be remedied. Next, the distrust between organizations and cultures needed to be bridged. Leading scientists to work with engineers (and vice versa) to develop a flight project is a unique challenge requiring special management skills. The fundamental need is for each group to understand and respect the capabilities and contributions of the other. Scientists discover things, using the time-tested method of hypothesis generation, experimentation and data analysis; engineers build things using established procedures of physics, design, analysis and test. Getting scientists to create implementable requirements that will lead to new discoveries and engineers to develop a robust design that is cost effective is best achieved through an iterative approach that utilizes the best program leadership available. I’m happy to say that the restructuring my team and I accomplished resulted in a 20-year architecture of successful Mars missions.

Human spaceflight

In 2003, I was asked to serve as the only NASA member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. For seven months, the board labored deep inside the Shuttle program to determine not only the technical reasons for the loss of crew and vehicle, but what organizational and cultural issues led to the tragedy. I learned that the HSF mindset tends to be top-down and hierarchical, accompanied by a strong personal dedication to the mission. This culture also brings along with it more than a bit of stubbornness. It was only after my live TV demonstration of the technical cause of the accident that all “what ifs” vanished and a consensus Return to Flight approach could be adopted.

In the end, while the scientific community can resemble a debating society, HSF seems more like the military with its chain of command. That said, the critical difference from scientific work is that in HSF, lives are at stake. Compared to robotic science missions, human crewed missions to the moon or Mars must include Human Health and Performance requirements, presenting an undeniable fundamental distinction between the two mindsets. The engineering culture supports both enterprises, although in somewhat different ways.

Culture change

Serving on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board also taught me that once established, a culture changes only slowly, under- constant pressure and leadership from the top. Because science is formally stated as one of the three pillars for NASA’s exploration architecture, achieving a unified, so-called One NASA approach for M2M will need a blending of science, engineering and unique HSF attributes. And that will take some time — years, probably. Merely changing the name plaque on the door or a box on an organizational chart is not nearly sufficient.

What can be done to facilitate and accelerate bridging the cultural divide? I think there must be a real dedication to a One NASA M2M program, starting by asking the top leadership (Administrator, Deputy Administrator and Associate Administrator) to embrace the principles of cross-organizational culture change, and then ensuring the next layer of NASA leadership is skilled in and committed to interdisciplinary and cross-organizational efforts. In that spirit, I recommend that NASA HQs immediately appoint a program scientist with authority and stature equal to the existing program management staff for Artemis and M2M.

Next, there needs to be a series of corresponding project scientists at lower levels who work shoulder to shoulder with the current Artemis and M2M project staff and engineers. Those scientists must be skilled in planetary science, astrobiology and Human Health and Performance disciplines, and must be able to communicate with the external communities.

Finally, I suggest an independent Standing Review Board populated by individuals outside of NASA that include senior scientists (with acknowledged achievements in the sciences described above), engineers, technologists, managers and leaders who can meet regularly to review the progress of Artemis and M2M. This group cannot be reactive but must be proactive in its pursuit of the One NASA goal of humanity exploring other worlds to meet the three pillars of science, national posture, and inspiration.

Returning humans to the moon and going on to Mars is a generational goal that may require new organizational structures, technologies and scientific creativity, but this is a challenge worthy of a great nation and America is up to the task!

G. Scott Hubbard has held key roles at NASA, including director of Ames Research Center, first Mars Program director, founder of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, and the agency’s sole member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Hubbard, now retired, serves on committees for the National Academy, NASA, and others, holding eight NASA medals, including the Distinguished Service Medal.

G. Scott Hubbard has held key roles at NASA, including director of Ames Research Center, first Mars Program director, founder of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, and the agency’s sole member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Hubbard, now retired,...