It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.”
― Steve Maraboli (n.d.)

There is a word I've seen repeatedly in the context of human spaceflight: that word is clarity. As recently as last weekend, the Romney space policy decries a lack of clarity of NASA's priorities under the current administration. (Smith, 2012.) Last week at the AIAA 2012 Space Conference, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver had this to say (Whittington, 2012):

Some have claimed that we are adrift with no clear human spaceflight destinations and no plans for the future. Nothing could be further from the truth, and those who perpetuate that myth only hurt our entire industry – and undermine our nation's goals — at this critical time.

At the top level, we have a debate over clarity of policy, goals, and implementation for human spaceflight. Depending on who you believe, we either have clarity, or not, on those matters.

Today, I'm going to share a different perspective, as an insider. My perspective was born out of the crucible of coursework this past quarter in the Executive MBA program, and in particular during work on a team project for a class entitled, “Organizations as Systems and Stuctures.” Some of you might call this an “organizational behavior” class, and you'd be correct.

From the perspective of the team, this question of clarity or not permeates the entire system, landing on the shoulders of the workforce charged with carrying out projects, programs, and support for human spaceflight. What we've observed is a critical problem that must be addressed, and soon: it is a fundamental lack of clarity on behalf of the workforce as to roles, responsibilities, and what constitutes success on a daily basis under the current paradigm. We see that as leading to a general dissatisfaction in the human spaceflight workforce and contributing to the ongoing loss of critical skills as people depart. Based on our conversations with peers and leaders, others share our observations.

What to do about it is much harder, and certainly more than what could be covered in a class project. Compounding the current situation are several possibilities that complicate the situation even more: (1) that some hope a change in administration in the Fall elections will somehow crystallize clarity around a return to the way human spaceflight has been done the last 50 years; (2) that keeping the current administration will bring clarity to human spaceflight, at least for the short term; (3) that funding questions from Congress will inject continued instability and lack of clarity; and (4) that the findings from the National Research Council study required under the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 will lead to outcomes which could go either way, towards clarity or yet another redefinition of human spaceflight at the policy level.

Meanwhile, we have the ongoing questions about daily roles, responsibilities, and what constitutes success for the workforce.

William Bridges, in his seminal work “Managing Transitions, 3rd Edition” (2009), speaks about change being fast, but transitions as slow. We're still in the midst of a transition started in 2010 with the cancellation of Constellation. In my opinion, for a transition to be successful requires engagement of the leadership and management in a plan that incorporates in part a workforce-centric viewpoint and points out at the individual level what his or her roles and responsibilities are, and what constitutes success. It may be difficult for all of us to focus on that with all the noise in the system, in part due to ongoing reverberations from 2010, and in part the upcoming elections. Yet if we can start work on an honest-to-goodness transition plan with a simple concept of roles, responsibilities, and success, we can stall the “brain drain” and build upon that plan once the future unfolds.

Text © 2012 Joe Williams. All rights reserved.
Image courtesy of NASA.


Bridges, W. (2009.) Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, 3rd Edition. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo

Maraboli, S. (n.d.) Quotes about clarity. Retrieved September 24, 2012 from

Smith, M. (2012, September 22.) “Romney Space Policy Still Short on Specifics.” Retrieved from

Whittington, M. (2012, September 11.) “NASA's Garver lists moon as goal for astronauts against Obama space policy.” Retrieved from