NASA's Achilles Heel
2/6/2003

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The Shocking Truth About NASA, and Other Large Organizations
    What I'm going to say here isn't intended as a slap at NASA anymore than it is at any other large organization, and my purpose in mentioning it is that management faculties might be able to find better ways to design organizations so that miscarriages don't happen as much or as easily... something that every high-level manager would like to see.
"Come With Me to Macedonia"
    When I was working for NASA, I thought about writing a book entitled, "The Waste Machine". It would describe, in a humorously shocking style, like "Mash" or "Dilbert", the crazy way in which NASA operated. But I was told that someone had beaten me to it with a book called, "Come With Me to Macedonia (Life in the American Civil Service)". I never got to see the book, but I'll bet it's good.
Some of us were bitter about the 1986 Challenger accident
    When the Challenger exploded during launch in January, 1986, some of us Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) employees who had experienced MSFC were bitter about what we knew (or at least thought we knew).
Killing the messenger...
    One level of management at MSFC had a long-standing reputation for killing any messenger who broug
ht less-than-good news. A friend of mine, now deceased, told me that his boss was a blatant alcoholic. My friend gathered the evidence and took it to his boss. His boss said, "______, I can't tell that to (X)! He'd have my job if I told him that kind of bad news!" So nothing was done about it.
Sweeping problems under the rug
    I had another friend who had worked directly under (X). He had told me years earlier that (X) operated by sweeping problems under the rug. And I heard stories from a third man who had also worked directly under (X). What I heard was that (X) had built his career, and had risen the management escalator by hiding bad news. If you wanted a job done right, you gave it to (X)' organization. You never heard anything bad about (X) if you were far enough removed from office scuttlebutt.
Was the Hubble Space Telescope problem fallout from MSFC's "see-no-evil" policy?
    Later, when the Hubble Space Telescope was found to be blurry-eyed because someone had used English units where they were supposed to employ metric units, I had an uncomfortable suspicion that Hubble was a victim of the same "tell-me-only-what-I-want-to-hear" management that I suspected had led to the Challenger accident.
Isn't NASA a "stars-in-their-eyes" outfit?
    One would suppose that NASA would be a stars-in-their-eyes kind of organization. And there certainly are stars-in-their-eyes people working for NASA (primarily youngsters not long out of college). It was a standing joke that you needed to get as much good work out of them as you could, before they wised up and saw what was really going on in the organization.
    The German management that founded MSFC were certainly devoted to space flight, and I'm sure there are some highly dedicated scientists and engineers throughout NASA and working for the contractors who support NASA.
So what was going on in the organization?
    One thing I'm happy I didn't realize while I was working there was that there was some drinking and womanizing taking place among some members of higher management. (Bear in mind that what I'm saying is hearsay. I don't know the names of the men who were allegedly engaged in misconduct. Still, I heard enough about it to believe that it was happening.) Since I retired from NASA, I've heard some shocking (to me) stories about what was happening while I was there.
I'm not blaming NASA (or really anyone)
    I don't blame NASA for these problems any more than other branches of the government, and the machinery of large organizations in general. I attribute at least part of our problems to the reward systems that we establish, as a society, within our organizations.
No profit motive
    You don't have to produce a product or show a profit. All you have to do is build a suitable justification. And nobody is spending his or her own money. It's all taxpayers' dollars, and the taxpayers are invisibly remote. At MSFC, you could get done almost anything you needed to get done provided you could justify it, and could execute enough paperwork.
Political Correctness
    One crippling problem with Civil Service is that it's a poster child for various types of political correctness. As a result, I got the impression that the technical staff at MSFC existed to justify the existence of its overgrown administrative staff. Every federal program (equal employment opportunities, safety, environmental awareness, training) has its own office in government agencies, and pushes its own agenda. This isn't all bad. These are worthy programs, and I know that they help move the country forward. The problem is that it's hard to get one's work done for all the interruptions and training classes.
The tail wags the dog.
    Civil Service organizations have administrative organizations that are an order of magnitude larger than they are in state and city governments, let alone the private sector. When Charlie Perry retired from his post as Chief of the Manpower Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center to accept a position as head of the City of Huntsville's Human Resources Office, he left an organization with 55 people to take over an organization of 5 people (one of whom was Tommie Jean). Both organizations had a comparable number of employees, but MSFC had a welter of public-spirited hiring policies and programs that required a larger support system than Huntsville's informal programs. Also, in Civil Service, it's very difficult to discipline employees for failure to perform. A employee who plays the stock market all day probably won't get a promotion, but he'll get in-step raises and cost-of-living adjustments. And it's next to impossible to get rid of him.
State of Georgia support personnel, in my experince, are very cooperative and supportive
    When I retired from MSFC and joined Georgia Tech (which is a state-operated organization), I was ecstatic over the cooperative attitudes of Tech's administrative staff, both in Huntsville and in Atlanta. They were there to support you, rather than to put obstacles in your path. It takes only a handful of hard-working administrative personnel at Tech to support the technical staff. At MSFC, there were nearly as many administrative personnel as there were technical personnel.

(To be continued)

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