Lessons Learned through Quotes from NASA HQ


“Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.”
–Thomas Carlyle


In the course of a recent conversation, a teammate said, “Joe, you were at NASA Headquarters – tell us something about what you learned while there.”  I was happy to oblige, but in my own way.

NASA Headquarters is in Washington, DC, just south of the National Mall.  Despite what some people may think, NASA Headquarters is not in Houston. In any case, I was honored to be selected for a leadership development program run from NASA Headquarters.  Part of the program entailed leaving home for an extended assignment at the place of our choosing, so why not DC?

I worked under a number of wonderful people during my year at NASA Headquarters.  Foremost of these was former NASA Associate Administrator Scott Pace, now the Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.  Through Scott I was exposed to a number of NASA leaders, including former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.  It was through these leaders that I gained my greatest insights into how NASA Headquarters works, which I captured through their quotes.  It’s amazing how much of an individual is revealed through the simple one-liners they say!  Here are the most notable:

“Actually, tell me why it has to be different based upon analysis, not because we can’t get along without it.” –Mike Griffin

This quote reveals much about how Mike Griffin thinks.  He is a big proponent of decision-making based upon objective evidence.  The consummate geek, he preferred data and analysis over posturing.  He is “one of us”, a true rocket scientist.

“I can explain it to them, I can’t understand it for them.”  –Mike Griffin

I heard this one in the context of testifying before one of the various subcommittees on the Hill.  Mike is a very direct and plain-speaking individual who tells it like it is.  Yet he realizes that he is not speaking to an audience of like-minded individuals who share his values, so I take this quote to mean that he will explain whatever in very direct terms and leave the interpretation to the audience.

“I only play golf on days that end with a Y.”  –Mike Griffin

Even the Administrator has a hobby!  Something for all of us to keep in mind, that there is more to life than work, even if you are the Administrator of NASA.

“Кто кого?” (“Kto kavo”, Russian phrase meaning, “Who reports to whom?”)  –Scott Pace

Besides NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, NASA consists of 10 field centers scattered across the country.  Perhaps the most well-known are the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral in Florida, from where the Shuttle launches; and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, home of the astronauts and Mission Control (and where I am).  NASA also consists of the Langley Research Center in Virginia, Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Stennis Space Center outside New Orleans, Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Dryden Flight Research Center near Edwards Air Force Base in California, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA.  With 18,000 government employees and over 40,000 contractors working directly on various space programs scattered across the county, it can be confusing to the casual observer about who reports to whom.

“Так точно!” (“Tak tochna”, Russian phrase meaning, “Yes, sir!”)  –Scott Pace

This phrase is similar to the Roman gladiator salute: “For those of us about to die, we salute you.”  Scott put it to me this way: sometimes it is best to salute, rather than argue.  This appears to me to be a survival tactic inside the Beltway.  I much prefer finding the alignment of the issue at hand with the larger NASA mission.  Yet I gather that this can be a challenge when dealing with political realities, so one must choose one’s battles carefully.

“Accomplish the mission, then preserve the men.” –Scott Pace

Because of my strong people orientation, I don’t take this one literally!  Instead, I see this as a statement that, in the end, results matter.  When thinking about what NASA is here for, I always come to this question; what is it that NASA has done for the American people.  In the end, NASA will be measured by how it improved life for people.

“It is simple to fix; it is not easy to fix.”  –Scott Pace

This apparent contradiction in terms bears closer examination on the subtlety of the wording.  An alternative way of saying this is, “easier said than done” or “the devil is in the details.”  Each of these drive home the point that actions leading to results are much more important than just saying what is wrong.  One of my executive coaches in the leadership development program was always pressing me with this statement, “and so, what are you going to do about it?”

“Three hundred agents united by a common travel agency.”  –Scott Pace

This is Scott’s way of saying that there is a clear difference between a group and a team.

And the final quote:

“Some things are secrets, some things are mysteries.”  –Scott Pace

From the words, I took this to mean that one can get more information about certain things (the secrets), but that for others (the mysteries), this will be impossible.  Therefore, focus on the important things and ignore the trivial.

What did I learn from this experience?  That the quotes others use often reveals details behind the individual that are not readily apparent through their normal communications.  Listen, and learn!

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