Darkest Before Dawn

“It is always darkest just before the Day dawns.” –Thomas Fuller

Another week has passed since I wrote about my perspectives on the fundamental  issues concerning the vision for NASA’s human spaceflight and the Obama Administration’s FY11 budget for NASA.  More information is slowly coming to light, and the NASA leadership at all levels has continued to press ahead.  I’d like to share a few more observations and opinions, both good and bad, before I put this subject to rest.

First, Jeff Foust wrote in “The reason for the limited budget details?” on spacepolitics.com that NASA got its budget passback from OMB very late in the budget process.  Let me explain what that means.  NASA submits its budget request to OMB in the mid- to late-October timeframe.  OMB provides its response to NASA in the form of a “passback” about a month later.  (Think of a passback as being a message from OMB: “Yes, we got your request; this is what you can really have.”)  What normally happens after passback is that NASA is permitted to do a “reclama”, which provides the Agency an opportunity to respond to details in passback.  Although the details in passback and reclama are under embargo until the President’s budget is released, the timing usually allows for some limited early planning for any changes resulting from passback.

However, this year the passback timing apparently didn’t happen in the usual way for NASA.  Foust reported that a NASA official said passback for this year’s budget happened very very late – not until 48 hours prior to the President’s budget release on February 1.  If it’s true that passback happened around January 30, I can’t see how a meaningful reclama would have occurred, nor would NASA have had the opportunity to plan how it would respond to the budget before it was released on February 1.  That seems to explain why we are where we are today, with many Agency officials surprised by the depth of changes and NASA with no concrete plan on how to proceed as of yet.  One might argue that the depth of the change – cancellation of Constellation – was so big that it would not have been possible to keep the information under embargo from late November to early February.  It would have leaked a lot earlier than it did.  One might argue that there would have been insufficient time and resources to plan the new course in such a short timeframe and under an embargo.  Others would say, “the writing was on the wall as a result of the Augustine Committee’s report – why were you not already planning?”  Yet others with a political axe to grind might take issue with the impacts to key states, or whether this stealthy approach demonstrates the Obama Administration’s idea of “open and transparent government” in action.  No matter.  We are where we are, with NASA leadership caught mostly off-guard and in reaction mode, and the Agency without a plan that weaves the threads of implied goals and objectives into a grander vision for human spaceflight.

Does that mean we won’t get there?  Not necessarily.  Starting with validation of a vision for human spaceflight, along with the right actions at the right time, we can achieve the compelling results that we and the rest of the nation seek.

So, let’s talk about actions so far by the NASA leadership – both the actions I see as positive, as well as negative.  There’s something to be learned from both.  Let me start with the latter.

Some of the actions of leadership at the upper levels of the Agency are puzzling and are leaving me and others with more questions than answers.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has embarked on a series of all-hands with the NASA human spaceflight workforce, having visited KSC and JSC as of this writing.  Charlie is a nice guy and means well, and I applaud his willingness to face a human spaceflight workforce facing an uncertain and cloudy future.  (At the very least, he is doing what I suggested in my previous post – get out and meet with the NASA workforce.)  However, I was under-impressed by his JSC all-hands, and my colleagues sampled so far share in the perspective.  It brought to mind a phrase from a book I just finished: “The greatest harm can come from the best intentions.” To help explain why, and with apologies in advance to the experts, I’m going to make some ties to Myers-Briggs.  Charlie strikes me as a strong Feeler, based upon my observations of him in action.  His deep-feeling emotions come to the surface when he talks on certain subjects, and he is genuinely concerned for the workforce.  That is a natural reaction for Feelers: it’s about the people first.  He strikes a further chord on the Feeling side in acknowledging and validating the blood, sweat, and tears of the Constellation team over the last five years.  However, the Feeling approach only goes so far, because the NASA workforce is predominantly a Thinking demographic.  Rationalization over the details in the President’s budget strike Thinkers as shallow.  The dribs and drabs of new information reinforce the perception with the Thinkers that “There is no plan.”  The Thinking workforce will want to know the plan: we will do this, then do this, then this.  Until that happens, many in the human spaceflight workforce will be frustrated, alienated, and left wondering if the leadership “gets it.”  If I were one of Charlie’s inner circle of advisors, I’d advise him to talk to the human spaceflight workforce more in a Thinking perspective: “Here is what we know.  Here is what we don’t know.  This is our plan for moving forward today….”

On the positive side, the leadership at JSC is taking more of the approach outlined above.  For example, today I attended an all-hands that struck all the right chords with me.  This was with Paul Hill, the director of Mission Operations at JSC.  MOD is an organization of about 3000 contractors and Civil Servants which performs mission planning, astronaut training, and real-time operations for NASA’s human spaceflight programs, and is greatly impacted by the cancellation of Constellation.  Paul hit each of the points above and went an extra step farther.  He compared where we are today versus where we were seven years ago, when we were dealing with very fundamental questions on the future of human spaceflight following the Columbia accident.  On this day seven years ago, a mere nine days after the accident, we were looking at the need to tackle problems that we were told were insolvable or would be impossible to do: trajectory reconstruction of a vehicle breakup on entry, tile inspection, and tile repair.  And we were told that we needed solutions or the shuttle would never fly again.  The magnitude of those “known unknowns” are similar to what we face today.  By building and executing a plan, within a few months we overcame obstacles that many claimed would be impossible to do, and returned to flying shuttle missions two and a half years after the accident.  The message is this: by focusing on solutions instead of problems, we will overcome the current challenges of ambiguity and uncertainty and will create a compelling future for human spaceflight.

What have you observed over the last week and a half? What are your thoughts on that, or to what I’ve shared here?  I’d love to hear from you.  Fire away!

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Darkest Before Dawn