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NASA struggles to alter its culture

By
FRANK SIETZEN

WASHINGTON, April 13 (UPI) -- When the Columbia Accident Investigation Board issued its report last August, it blasted what it described as a non-existent safety program and a space agency culture that inhibited open discussions.

The next day, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe held a news conference to embrace the board's conclusions about the factors leading to the space shuttle tragedy.

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"We get it," O'Keefe said, referring to the harsh criticisms the report contained and the recommendation that for the shuttles ever to fly safely again, the 45-year-old bureaucracy would have to virtually reinvent the way its employees interacted with one another.

Now, O'Keefe once again has promised to change NASA, this time in the face of a new report, released Tuesday, that has called his reforms into question.

The report, "Assessment and Plan for Organizational Culture Change at NASA," was prepared by Behavioral Science Technology of Ojai, Calif., which surveyed about 40 percent of the space agency's 19,000 member workforce. The results hold both good and bad news for agency reinventers like O'Keefe.

On the positive side, it found "many positive aspects to the NASA culture." These positive elements reflected what the report called "a long legacy of technical excellence." Shuttle astronaut James D. Wetherbee, now a technical assistant to the director of Johnson Space Center in Houston -- who worked with BST researchers -- said that legacy "stems from our can-do spirit." At the peer level, NASA's attributes were "among the strongest that we have seen," the BST report said.

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Nevertheless, based on survey results, the report found the present-day NASA working environment "does not yet reflect the agency's espoused core values of safety, people, excellence, and integrity." It noted although NASA clearly has become an organization in transition, its ongoing activities still lack a clear direction regarding "how it all fits together."

Safety remains a prime concern. The report said NASA, for all of its post-Columbia pledges to allow a new openness, has not yet created a culture that is fully supportive of safety. Worse, openness and communication have not yet become the norm and employees do not feel fully comfortable raising safety concerns to management. Such reluctance was said to have been a contributing cause of the Columbia accident on Feb. 1, 2003.

NASA's people also do not feel "respected or appreciated," the report said, and although the agency retains a strong technical commitment, as evidenced by its employee work ethic, employees do not feel the same devotion to the organization itself.

"Why do people work here?" Wetherbee asked. "It's not because of the money they make ... or because we take care of them." It is because they believe in space exploration and the agency's role in pioneering the space program. The need, Wetherbee said, is to provide an environment where employees will not be afraid to speak up -- and it is high time they are asked what they want -- or need -- to accomplish their jobs.

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"We've got a lot of work to do," O'Keefe told United Press International. "We can never eliminate the risk (of spaceflight) but we can minimize it."

The skepticism expressed by the NASA employees who responded to the BST study was matched with a desire for a restructured set of communication plans that will allow them to speak up without fear of facing harsh consequences for their candor.

"It's not that people are afraid of being fired," Wetherbee said. "They fear that if they speak up (too much) they will become ineffective." He also described an environment where space agency workers often felt under siege by the negative news reports that persisted following the shuttle disaster.

"We have to be bold enough not to read the newspapers that say 'NASA failed again!'" Wetherbee said.

"It is the challenge of communication," said James L. Jennings, NASA's associate deputy administrator for institutions and assets.

With the shuttle program facing a safety overhaul of its own, and with NASA employees and contractors feeling neglected and in fear of speaking out, O'Keefe said he has launched a five-month initial effort to re-establish openness and a new communications plan for the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters and its field centers.

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The plan will start with the Engineering and the Mission Operations Directorates at Johnson Space Center, the Glenn Research Center in Ohio, the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the Safety and Mission Assuredness organizations at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Goddard Space Center in Maryland, in addition to agency headquarters.

"We knew we couldn't take the whole agency at once," Jennings commented.

The initiative will to find ways to give NASA workers renewed confidence, both in themselves and in speaking out without fear of retribution.

O'Keefe said forcing management to listen to opposing views will make for a stronger safety effort as well as give employees the feeling they are helping to shape the decisions. It also should force managers to reconsider their own choices.

"Only fools have no doubts," O'Keefe joked. Employees would not only be interviewed in depth to hear their gripes and worries, but also get the chance to shape the communications plan itself as it develops. They also would be asked about professional development steps NASA could take to enrich or improve their experience as space workers.

Critics have suggested that NASA has attempted similar efforts in the past, all with little success. Some have said while O'Keefe was bringing in fresh management blood and new talent to his embattled agency, most, if not all, of his new hires have been drawn from the military, with few coming onboard with actual space experience.

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Case in point: O'Keefe's new chief of the space exploration office, former navy Adm. Craig E. Steidle, whose previous assignment was managing the Joint Strike Fighter program for the Pentagon.

O'Keefe acknowledged the criticism and countered that while the five-month plan is evolving, he himself will not be immune from review. "You have to lead by example," he said.

He said he will be interviewed by BST on Wednesday to discuss communications issues. He added that when the five months are up, NASA will impose a more comprehensive, three-year plan, employing elements learned from the BST study.

Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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