The Question

”To every answer you can find a new question.”
–Yiddish proverb

Yesterday I was asked a rather innocent question: “What are you doing exactly?”  I took a bit of a leap of faith and answered the question by sharing details about the particulars of my team’s work and the challenges we are facing.

What happened after that was simply amazing.

Later that day, I encountered a somewhat similar story from a different angle told by Janine Shepherd (@janineshepherd on Twitter) in her latest blog entry. In it she asked an inquisitive question and discovered an incredible story about another soul on a different journey but to the same destination.

Was the universe trying to tell me something?  Was I listening?  But before I get ahead of myself, here is what I shared in response to the original question.

Within NASA’s mission operations in Houston, we have two key facilities used to train astronauts and to perform engineering assessment, some light fabrication, and mission timeline verification.  These are the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) and the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF).  The NBL is a huge pool – 200 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 40 feet deep – that uses neutral buoyancy techniques to simulate microgravity. It’s best known as where the astronauts train for EVAs, or “spacewalks”.  The SVMF contains full-sized mockups of the shuttle, ISS and other human-tended vehicles and is used to train astronauts in the usage of crew systems inside the vehicles, among other activities.  Most of the work in these locations is performed by contractors, and the current contract ends in September 2010.  Therefore, the primary responsibility of my team is to create a contract strategy.

But it is more than simply re-letting a contract. The Space Shuttle Program is a major tenant in both of these facilities.  Although the Constellation Program will become a tenant in the future, it will not be in 2011 when shuttle is retired.  In fact, Constellation will not have the same need for space-based EVAs like did the shuttle or ISS assembly, which puts a bigger question on the future of the NBL.  (Constellation’s primary EVA need will be surface operations, which is not needed until the lunar program gets going later in the next decade, and will be partial gravity instead of microgravity.)  Therefore, the fundamental issue at hand is what do we do with these key agency and national assets, and how do we build a contract around that approach?

The second item with which we are wrestling is tied to a memorandum from the White House released in March, and a desire from NASA Headquarters that predates the memorandum, to transition work to fixed price contracting.  I’m not a procurement professional – I’m a physicist by schooling, aerospace engineer by trade, and now leading teams by choice – so the whole environment of contract types and structures was foreign to me until I got into this activity.  The problem is one of a paradigm shift.  NASA and other federal agencies are accustomed to “cost reimbursable” contracting, which means something like this: “I’m not exactly sure what I need, but I have a decent idea; therefore, you do the work and I’ll reimburse you for your costs, no matter what they are. I’ll pay for your contingencies, too.” Fixed price is more like this: “I know what I want; let’s agree upon the price, and that is all I’m willing to pay, no matter what – in other words, you eat the contingencies.” The latter is seen as one of several means to better control costs from a government standpoint, which is critical given our current budgetary situation.  Discretionary spending like that of NASA is going to come under ever increasing pressure, and we all know that.

So, I’m leading the cutting edge of strategic development to address the transition of a facility through and beyond shuttle retirement, which has its own set of concerns about workforce impacts, and through a possible transition to fixed price contracting.  You can see our work here: http://procurement.jsc.nasa.gov/nsoc.  Although the current focus is the NBL and SVMF, I’m paving the way for other similar efforts to come soon within NASA’s mission operations.  I did the NASA leadership development program 2 years in preparation to transition from an entry-level technical leadership role into a higher-level leadership role, which is exactly what I got.  Boy, did I ever!

As I said earlier, what happened after I shared my story was simply amazing.  The person with whom I was conversing was Eva-Jane Lark (@EVA_Interviews on Twitter) who conducts interviews with space entrepreneurs.  More importantly for me, she has a unique perspective on the financing of space endeavors due to her role as an investment advisor for a well-known firm in Ottawa.  Little did I know that she has first-hand expertise in many of the issues my team is facing, and as an independent party has given me insights that I have not found elsewhere.

I reflected on this last night and this morning and realized that the message was simple: the power of a question, and being open to sharing, creates incredible possibilities. Imagine what would happen if all of us were inquisitive and open to entertaining questions as a natural response. Imagine what we could learn…the connections we can make and strengthen.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

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The Question