With Atlantis landing, shuttle program ends — and new challenges begin for NASA leadership


Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Thursday, July 21, 2011. The landing of Atlantis marks the end of NASA's 30 year space shuttle program. (Pierre Du Charme/AP)

As part of a weekly opinion roundtable, On Leadership invited Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli, Space Policy Institute Professor Emeritus John Logsdon, NYU Professor Kerry Sulkowicz, and former NASA leadership program director Gail S. Williams to explore the leadership challenges of shuttering NASA’s iconic space shuttle program and of moving into a new era now that the final shuttle, Atlantis, has landed.

So what did they say are some of the major challenges now for NASA? Here are highlights from their pieces.

Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli says the biggest challenge will be workforce issues:

The assumption now is often that new and very different tasks require new and very different employees. Move out the old and bring in the new.

In the case of NASA, however, there are reasons to believe that bringing in a new group won’t work so well. Putting together complex projects like these requires a great deal of tacit knowledge—things you can only learn by doing. And for the most part, there’s no other employer out there doing anything similar. This isn’t like Microsoft hiring from Google. (Continue reading “What happens to NASA’s shuttle workers now?”)

John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute, says the greatest challenge instead lies outside of NASA, with lack of consensus among U.S. political leadership as to NASA’s future:

In more than 40 years of close observation of the U.S. space program, I don’t think there has ever been more uncertainty and fear of impending program collapse. One result of the current confusion is the too-widespread impression that  the final flight of the shuttle means that the U.S. program of human spaceflight has come to an end. This is most certainly not the case. Many American astronauts will be living and working on the International Space Station for the decade to come. And yet equating the end of the shuttle program with the end of human spaceflight is symptomatic of the failure of national leaders to agree on and then communicate a vision of the U.S. future in space. (Continue reading “U.S. space program’s leadership blackhole”)

Kerry Sulkowicz, a professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medecine, says that NASA will experience a more difficult organizational grieving period than it may think:

In his more private leadership role inside NASA, one presumes that [NASA Director] Bolden is attuned to the multiple layers of meaning in the shuttle’s last flight, ranging from the literal loss of jobs to the more purely emotional losses of purpose, self-esteem and organizational pride that may come with such a transition. He would do well to tolerate, and even encourage, employees to voice such feelings. No matter how exciting the new plans might be, it’s a crucial step in helping the organization transcend this loss and move on.(Continue reading “Saying good bye to the last space shuttle”)

Finally, Gail Williams — a former director of the Leadership Alchemy program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center — says that among NASA’s challenges will be convincing policymakers and the American public that a new space travel mission is worth the cost and risk:

A mission of this magnitude and complexity will require a budget to match it; and, moreover, a continuity of support over decades. NASA will need to be able to count on that level of commitment from both the president and Congress if the new human spaceflight program is to be sustainable and achievable over the long haul. And yet, one of the major questions is whether the majority of Americans believe the benefits derived are worth the expense. The Human Spaceflight Plans Committee chartered by President Obama estimated in 2009 that the human spaceflight program costs each citizen about 7 cents per day.

And it’s not just monetary costs at stake. Space travel is inherently a risky business, and human travel beyond low Earth orbit, especially to an asteroid or Mars, will be even more challenging and riskier than past NASA endeavors. It’s unclear whether the American people and political leaders will accept the risk of failure, possibly even the loss of life, inherent in deep space travel. (Continue reading “End of program launches major challenges for NASA”)

Read full roundtable responses:

John Logsdon: U.S. space program’s leadership blackhole

Peter Cappelli: What happens to NASA’s shuttle workers now?

Kerry Sulkowicz: Saying good bye to the last space shuttle

Gail Williams: End of program launches challenges for NASA

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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