commentary

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  Space News Business

commentary

posted: 31 January 2005
11:09 am ET


First of all, it is a bit uncomfortable discussing the challenges facing the next head of NASA while Sean O’Keefe is still very much in place as a dministrator, and is certain to remain such for some weeks yet. Mr. O’Keefe may be a lame duck, but he continues to make decisions, exercise all facets of his leadership role and will preside over the unveiling of the administration’s 2006 budget proposal

That being said, it is natural to look beyond his tenure, since it will soon come to a close. A New York Times editorial Dec. 26 stated that Mr. O’Keefe is leaving NASA “in worse shape than he found it.” This is rather unfair, since few of NASA’s problems today are of Sean O’Keefe’s making, and he had worked hard to address them.

When he was asked in November 2001 by Vice President Dick Cheney to leave his position as d eputy d irector of the Office of Management and Budget to try to deal with the problems at NASA that the Bush administration had inherited, it is likely that O’Keefe viewed the NASA job as a relatively short-term assignment to demonstrate his ability to manage a large and troubled organization.

He certainly could not have anticipated what lay ahead.

By the first weeks of 2003, things at NASA were looking up. The management and cost problems with the i nternational s pace s tation program that had been the immediate problem were seemingly under control, and the troubled relationship with NASA’s international partners had been smoothed. NASA employees were relieved to have a supportive, people-oriented individual at the agency’s helm after a decade of tumult during the tenure of Dan Goldin. Mr. O’Keefe and his associates had developed a new strategic plan for NASA that identified NASA’s post-9/11 mission as “to understand and protect our home planet.”

Then came the tragic Columbia accident, an event that has had a transformational impact on NASA.

When Adm. Hal Gehman, chair of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, decided in the weeks immediately following the accident to extend the b oard’s investigation beyond the technical cause of the accident to its organizational roots, he opened the door to a searching examination of just where things had gone wrong with the U.S. civilian space agency. What the b oard found behind that door was an organization that last year’s Aldridge Commission characterized as “not wired for success.”

The New York Times in its assessment suggested that Sean O’Keefe “will bequeath to his successor a daunting array of half-finished tasks.” True enough. But the recognition that NASA was, and still is, in need of dramatic organizational surgery goes back at least 15 years, to well before Mr. O’Keefe’s tenure, and represents the most basic challenge that will face his successor.

Yale organizational sociologist Gary Brewer in 1989 suggested that the post-Apollo NASA had become characterized by “flawed decision-making, self-deception, introversion and a diminished curiosity about the world outside the [former] perfect place.” The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found this description still accurate, at least with respect to the space shuttle program.

In 1990, an Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, chaired by respected aerospace executive Norm Augustine, noted that NASA was “the subject of considerable criticism,” ranging from “concern over technical capability to the complexity of major space projects; from the ability to estimate and control costs to the growth of bureaucracy; and from the lack of an overall space plan to an alleged institutional resistance to new ideas and change.”

Dan Goldin was brought in by the first Bush administration to address these criticisms. In his almost 10 years as NASA administrator, he struggled to bend the organization to his views of how best to move forward. Goldin’s emphasis on cutting-edge technologies, his decision to assign primary program responsibility to the various centers and limit NASA headquarters to the role of strategic management and to downsize the NASA workforce, his attempt to move beyond the space shuttle to a new transportation system, and of course, the “faster, better, cheaper” approach to spacecraft development were all elements of his approach to organizational change.

His attempts at fixing NASA were undercut by his difficult personality, but even more by a White House that was not willing to offer its political support, a Congress protective of local interests and an embedded organization able to resist his initiatives. NASA at the end of 2001 still had many of the organizational problems evident a decade earlier.

This is the situation that Sean O’Keefe inherited just over three years ago. In the pre-Columbia months, he initiated a variety of organizational changes — an integrated financial management system, an emphasis on “One NASA” rather than a confederation of quasi-independent field centers and a return of control over major programs to NASA Headquarters.

In the aftermath of the shuttle accident and the scathing criticism of NASA’s organizational culture in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report, he redoubled his efforts, trying to transform NASA into an organization up to the task of implementing the challenging long-term agenda set out in the new Vision for Space Exploration.

Keys to this were additional organizational change activities and a reorganization of the NASA structure.

O’Keefe brought in leadership for the space exploration effort that is attempting to graft a new (for NASA) way of doing business onto an organization that remains convinced that it remains the primary if not sole repository of experience in carrying out a space exploration program.

None of Sean O’Keefe’s organizational reforms have yet taken firm hold. It will be up to his successor to continue them, or to substitute alternative approaches.

It is thus quite true that the next NASA a dministrator will face “a daunting array of half-finished tasks.” There are many difficult programmatic decisions to be made this year. The Columbia Board decried the 30 -year lack of a compelling vision for the civilian space program. The administration of George W. Bush has proposed such a vision, and perhaps the number one task of the next administrator is to help shape the still-needed debate on whether this is a path into the future that the country is willing to commit to. The late-night, under-the-threat-of-veto, c ongressional approval of this year’s NASA budget is not a secure and sustainable national mandate in support of the v ision.

However, almost equal in priority for the next administrator is the unfinished business of organizational change. If NASA tries to implement the long-sought vision in the way it has operated for over 30 years, public and political disenchantment with the civilian space program is almost certain. The Aldridge Commission last year decided that facing up to the issue of whether NASA needed all of its current institutional infrastructure was politically too hard, and thus did not recommend the NASA equivalent of a base closure commission. That hard look is needed.

A candidate for NASA administrator should find out early on whether the Bush administration is willing to use some of its post-election political capital to help him or her take on the challenge of reshaping NASA into a 21st century organization that is up to the task assigned to it.

In December 1990, the Augustine Commission, judged that “NASA, and only NASA, realistically possesses the essential critical mass of knowledge and expertise upon which the nation’s civil space program can be sustained.” Thus, “the task at hand is … for NASA to focus on making the self-improvements that gird this responsibility.”

Leading this still needed “self-improvement” will be the defining success criteria for the next NASA a dministrator.

John M. Logsdon is the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, and was a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board