Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2002
Published in "Impact" - LESA BULLETIN 2002-003 IFPTE LOCAL 28 AFL-CIO & CLC. Reprinted by permission
IFPTE LOCAL 28 Op Ed: "You Mean Everything Isn't Beautiful?" by Dr. William H. Jones
I recently had a colleague, who has been away through much of the transition to the new Administrator, remark that he had expected morale to improve with the departure of the former Administrator. Instead, it was his clear judgment that morale had markedly declined. Since I write for the union and seem to articulate the popular rage well, he naturally assumed that I would know. To be honest, I do not know. I do not interact with any significant portion of the Agency. I am not privileged to have the grand view of the whole. I know only the little bits and pieces that float by my door. This will not, of course, prevent me from pontificating upon the subject just as though I did know.
Simply put, morale is low because the Agency is in utter chaos. There is no consistent theme or pattern upon which to build long-term plans of action. Big-time projects with goals and budgets come and go in the technological blink of an eye. Politicized managers are so absorbed in watching for programmatic plums to snatch out of the general jumble that no technological sense is made of anything. Even more discouraging is the fact that Mr. O'Keefe does not seem to recognize the morale crisis in which he is drowning. He thinks that because he meets a seemingly endless stream of very bright, motivated, enthusiastic people, that morale is high. I am bright, I am motivated, I am genuinely enthusiastic about what I think I can do for this Agency, but I am also discouraged to the point of early retirement because I do not see an Agency in any condition to use what I can do. I know many others in exactly the same condition. In my view, the present chaos has its real roots in the political nature of the Agency. In some distant past, the Agency, then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was perhaps nearly free of politics; it was thought to be a good thing for the Government to devote a little money towards learning what flight was really all about so that our aeronautical industry could grow and mature, and that was about all the attention it got. With the coming of the missile gap, and with the gigantic push President Kennedy gave to that issue, NASA became a political instrument of world-spanning and unassailable importance. The unfortunate truth, though, is that the moment Neil Armstrong's foot touched the surface of the moon, that all evaporated. We had met the challenge, we had reached the goal, and the question of every day since then has really been "Why waste any more money on space?".
One of the things that always irritates me is how poorly the people at the top answer those questions. Why do we need a space station? What is it going to do for us? Why is it worth the twenty-four billion dollars we've spent so far and the four or six or eight billion more they say it may cost? Even when the question is asked by a Congressman utterly disposed to sending another couple billion to the Great States of Boeing, Johnson, or Marshall, the answers always seem squeamish and unconvincing: to do world-class science, to improve life here, to extend cost overruns there, to boldly go home from this hearing alive (I may have some of these mixed up). These are the answers of the politician talking to the politician.
To the technologist, the answer to why is far easier: to get mankind off this rock. This planet Earth is finite: no matter how harmoniously we live with our environment, no matter how thoroughly we utilize its every resource, it will run out. If we do not find our way off this planet and into the infinity of space, we will overpopulate this planet into a living hell in which the "mercies" of Mother Nature will finally control all and force upon mankind the solutions demanded by a finite world. The knowledge and technology to get mankind off this planet will be beyond anything ever imagined by Gene Roddenberry. The space program does not exist to do world-class science, the worldclass science exists to do the space program.
It is because the political answers are used in a political Congress that the Agency drifts on from crisis to crisis. It is because the political answers are used that management has become, very nearly to the grass roots level, political rather than technical. Key decisions costing and distributing millions and billions of dollars are made on a political basis rather than a technical one. Political achievement is rewarded, not technical achievement. Frosting over all of this is the utter hypocrisy pushed constantly by our leaders that the opposite is true, that technologists are wanted and valued and desperately needed when even a blind technologist can see the plain truth before him.
Did Mr. Goldin help this state of chaos along? Yes. Certainly. He eagerly accepted budget cuts, without the political difficulties of commensurate mission cuts, in a business that had no budget to spare. He decided in his own mind that sufficient chanting of the right mantra could make up for all the talents and resources that he was happily tossing away; he erected a framework of management by psychotic episode the like of which has probably not been seen since the Roman Emperors. And Mr. Goldin did have help from President Clinton who, perhaps rightly, decided to trade away a little of the Agency's cohesion for the political purpose of stabilizing the Russian technological community (at least a little) by internationalizing the space station, a move that most agree has seriously harmed the project itself.
And what of Mr. O'Keefe? Why hasn't the arrival of someone with every appearance of sanity and competence brought order to this house? To start with, change, even from bad to good, when made with sufficient speed is, in fact, chaos. The fact that the present course may take us to a more rational state does not mitigate the fact that nobody seems to know what is going on or what is going to happen next. A few months ago the Space Launch Initiative was an assured, massive program that was going forward; this month it is being carved up to obtain money for the aging and decaying Space Shuttle system. Whose program will be next and when will that axe fall? Are we on a course to a more rational state? Personally, I doubt it. The curse of politics, with all that that entails, is upon us and while this is so the morale of the technologists will decline; they will leave the Agency and the program, as I personally hope to do, and the disasters which so many foresee will come to pass. I do not see Mr. O'Keefe as the one to throw politics off the back of this Agency. Mr. O'Keefe is seen and acknowledged not as the one man uniquely qualified to lead NASA, but as a sound, sensible administrator. His name has been mentioned as a possible head of the Department of Homeland Security. This thought, however remote, attests to the fact that he is one of those managers that can manage anything well rather than a man with one, and only one, mission in life.
Dr. Jones is available through e-mail at William.H.Jones@grc.nasa.gov and also reads the grc.talk news group regularly; however, he reserves the right to say nothing at his convenience.
LESA dues paying members in good standing are encouraged to submit articles for review and possible publication for a future IMPACT Bulletin. Please send your articles by E-mail to Alice Martinez, with a c.c. to LESA, or by mail to IFPTE, Local 28, MS 15- 10 Attn: Office Manager, Alice Martinez.
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