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« Ad Astra, Sans NASA (Continued) | Main | Shoddy Reporting »

NASA's Culture Of Denial

There's been a lot of talk, with today's release of the Gehman Report, about NASA's "culture." Jim Oberg (who should certainly know) has a pretty good description of it.

I haven't read the report yet, but I've heard nothing about it in the various news accounts that I found surprising. I had a pretty good idea what it was going to say within a week of the event, to a very high confidence level. They examined every possibility, but the prime suspect was always the foam debris hitting the leading edge, and I predicted that it would be a broken leading edge on the day it happened. But this was an interesting comment from Admiral Gehman:

...when asked at a press conference how much of his final report could have been written BEFORE the disaster, Gehman thought momentarily and replied, ?Probably most of it.?


But this is the key point:

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the ?NASA culture? is that its managers act as if they are proverbial ?rocket scientists.?

In late 1999, following the loss of a fleet of unmanned Mars probes, a NASA official was asked at a press conference about what the repercussions might be. Would anyone lose their jobs over such performance, a reporter asked?

There would be no such consequences, the official replied. ?After all,? he explained, ?who would we replace them with? We already have the smartest people in the country working for us.?

There's an old saying about pride and falls...

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 26, 2003 01:56 PM
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Tracked: August 26, 2003 06:48 PM

"We already have the smartest people in the country working for us"

or inother words, "if we can't do it, nobody can."
The assumption being that anyone who doesn't work for them, or doesn't want to work for them, or isn't willing to put up with the bureaucratic BS such an organziation always has, isn't that smart.

This is an attitude found in a lot of bureaucratic organizations, not just NASA. The National Park Service has it, the CIA has it, as does the State Department-- witness how no one loses their job in those organizations despite millions of burnt acres, or thousands of dead Americans. And big companies can have it too-- from US Steel to General Motors to IBM to Microsoft.

But in the private sphere, such an attitude would be a sure indication that that field is ripe for new startups, with the old boys threatend by new technologies, loss of market share, mergers hostile takeovers, and bankruptcy-- Creative destruction. But in a monopoly like NASA , that option isn't available. They just keep going on, making newer and bigger mistakes and never learning from them.

I really, really want to see some of these people working on private launch systems to succeed, if nothing else than to prove this attitude wrong, that spaceflight is no different than any other past pioneering enterprise.

Posted by Raoul Ortega at August 26, 2003 08:35 PM

It's interesting that NASA people think they have the smartest people in the world working for them.

Lots of people tell me I'm exceptionally intelligent. Most people think I'm a pretty good guy -- if somewhat unconventional. And, over the years, I think I've demonstrated active support of space exploration and development.

You'd think I'd be a natural for employment at NASA. Some people I gather still think I am.

In the late 1990s one of the good people at Goddard, Lou Walter, casually remarked to me that, with my skills, I should get out of NASA. This man who had forged a distinguished career at NASA was that fed up with what he saw going on.

When this over the top control freak (I suspect she drove several people to quit) was orchestrating a plot to get rid of me, word got back to me that she said "He's brilliant. Why doesn't he get it?" The people I left behind, while above average in intelligence, had one characteristic in common -- they were all amenable to extremely authoritarian control. Some actually sought it out.

There was little or no questioning of the underlying culture of extreme top down control. It's quite depressing when you think about it.

Posted by Chuck Divine at August 27, 2003 07:31 AM

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