The Journey: Why Am I Blogging About Leadership and NASA?


“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”
–Don Williams, Jr

Why am I on Twitter (@rikerjoe) and blogging about leadership and NASA?  To set the stage, I’d like to share a bit about my journey so far.

As a child growing up in Houston, I was always interested in space. My imagination was further sparked by my grandfather’s first-hand accounts of working for Boeing on the Apollo Program in the 1960s, and I followed with a passion NASA’s great missions of discovery in our solar system during the 1970s.  I turned my passion for space into an academic pursuit by obtaining bachelor and masters degrees in physics.  Upon completing graduate school, I returned to Houston and saw a NASA ad in the Houston Chronicle.  The combination of my lifetime interest in space and opportunity led me to a job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home of Mission Control and the astronauts.

During the first part of my career, I was blessed to work in mission operations for the shuttle, then the International Space Station.  I experienced first-hand, as a flight controller working in Mission Control, shuttle missions that explored low earth orbit following the Challenger accident.  I also participated in the transition to a new mission of discovery rooted in international cooperation with the shuttle flights to the Russian space station Mir, and eventually the start of the International Space Station.  It was an exciting and challenging time of overcoming technical, political, budgetary, and language barriers.  My abilities to grasp big-picture thinking and produce compelling results in such a challenging environment were recognized by my leadership, and I eventually joined the ranks of leadership in mission operations.  I led two different groups of flight controllers through the first wave of assembly missions for the International Space Station.

Then, the Columbia accident happened.

As a young leader, I asked myself the question, “What did I do – or not do – that contributed to the accident?”  I consumed the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, dissected it into its essentials, and attempted to reassemble it into my own leadership view.  From this I saw indications of a rather disturbing picture: several of the leaders involved in the flawed decision-making during the ill-fated Columbia mission spent time as leaders within my organization.  In my opinion, my home organization is very much in the mode of leadership development through emulation, rooted in a military-like hierarchal approach to operations that have remained essentially unchanged since the Apollo era. Could that have somehow contributed to the Columbia accident? Clearly, I had more questions than answers, and I wasn’t going to find those answers by staying put.  I was also growing dissatisfied with my entry-level leadership role, and I didn’t know why either.  Were these connected, or symptoms of different problems?  Finally, I saw a tremendous threat to the future of mission operations in the form of reduced budgets.  Modern-day budgetary constraints make the mission operations approaches established nearly 50 years ago unsustainable in the long run, yet I saw no action by my leadership to prepare for the threat I knew instinctively would come.  Again I knew I needed to take action.

I took a bold step and applied for NASA’s leadership development program.  I was motivated by potential exposure to new leadership approaches and ways of thinking that embrace change in a proactive manner, and vowed to bring that back home.  The program took me out of my “comfort zone” by leading me to NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC for a ten-month assignment and a year of intensive leadership training experiences at sites scattered across the country.  During my year I was able to learn more about the framework of leadership, and I was exposed to leadership in different environments in other areas of NASA and outside of NASA.  I worked for key leaders and had access to far reaching decision-making at the highest levels at NASA.  I walked the halls behind the scenes at Capitol Hill where I was able to “peek behind the curtain” on how work gets done – or not done – in Congress.  I conversed with military leaders at Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs to reaffirm for myself the strength of discipline contained in the military roots of my own organization.  I engaged with leaders in Silicon Valley, who are leading a tremendous wave of change sweeping the globe.  I was moved by the compelling stories told by leaders of various non-profit efforts, who accomplish more with pure vision and determination than many of the rest of us.  And I read about and walked the battlefields of Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, to reflect upon the tactical and strategic decisions of leadership that led to the ultimate consequences nearly 150 years ago.  Wow, what a unique experience!  I’m getting chills right now as I write this.

When I returned home following graduation from the leadership development program, it was with a renewed and larger sense of purpose.  I have a vision of the future of mission operations that the leadership openly embraces and supports.  During my first assignment, I co-led a team charged with redefining the work for the infrastructure of NASA’s Mission Operations in Houston. My driving target is to reduce the operations cost of the International Space Station by 30 percent, and to operate the next generation of space vehicles for 50 percent of the shuttle’s current operations cost.  For this effort, we exceeded our expectations, yielding a savings of approximately $300 million to the American taxpayer while expanding the use of technological innovations and synergies.  This enables us to continue to improve and excel in human space operations for a greatly reduced cost.

My organization’s leadership team took note of our successes and my technical and leadership roles in it, and asked me to lead the next effort of strategic planning.  That is what I’m doing now.  The time for learning hasn’t ended; it co-exists with taking action and producing compelling results every day.  My own near-term challenge as a leader is to share more about “what drives me” as a leader.  In part, I am driven by continuous learning and discovery which, as Richard Feynman said, is not complete until it is shared with someone else.  I am strongly motivated by the uniqueness that each of us have, and I consider it no accident that each of us is here at this moment in time.  It is for a reason – a necessity – that we’re here to help the universe unfold in its full glory together.  It is for these reasons why I’ve turned my journaling, which was a private affair, into blogging about my experiences in leadership at NASA.  I’m out there for all of you to see, both for you to benefit from my successes and failures as well as for me to learn and grow with you.  It is also as much of a willingness for me to ask for your help rather than to rely solely upon my own resources.  It’s about authentic presence.

I invite you to continue with me on this journey.

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The Journey: Why Am I Blogging About Leadership and NASA?