End of space shuttle program launches major challenges for NASA

July 12, 2011

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with four expert contributors — Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli, Space Policy Institute Professor Emeritus John Logsdon, NYU Professor Kerry Sulkowicz, and former NASA leadership program director Gail S. Williams — about the leadership challenges of shuttering NASA’s iconic space shuttle program.

There are many significant issues that should concern NASA leaders as the agency transitions to the bold, new mission of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. One of the first is, given the current tough economic times and large U.S. deficit, how affordable this new mission will be and how well it will compete with the myriad other federal programs.

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.

To mitigate such risk, NASA will need to help support industry’s development of a safe, reliable and timely launch capability for delivering humans to low Earth orbit. Yet given the lengthy hiatus in the U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space, NASA and its contractor partners may run into difficulty attracting and retaining the best and brightest engineering and science talent. Many current employees with critical corporate memory are also likely to depart or retire, making it more difficult for NASA to build on past human spaceflight successes.

These challenges all build on each other, and so perhaps the best – and most manageable – place for NASA’s leadership to start is at its own core: this question of retaining and engaging its employees. To overhaul the workforce’s focus on the new, while respecting the attachment people have to the old, will mean celebrating broadly and enthusiastically the agency’s past successes during this period of bringing the former human spaceflight mission to closure. This will also serve as a launching point for identifying the heritage upon which the new mission should be built.

NASA’s people will flounder, and will not achieve a successful transition, without a solid understanding of where they are going and what this mission change means at both organizational and individual levels. A cross-section of the workforce should start to put “some meat on the human spaceflight exploration bones,” so to speak; while at the same time, NASA management must be transparent with the workforce, even if it means conveying temporary uncertainties. NASA’s scientific and engineering culture often focuses on task accomplishment, forgetting about the human component. Yet transitioning is an emotional and intellectual journey, and NASA cannot afford to give short shrift to either task or relationship.

The NASA workforce has a remarkable “can-do attitude,” and yet born from this is the temptation to overestimate what can be done within allocated resources. NASA’s leadership will need to tangibly, and repeatedly, demonstrate an unwavering commitment to align resources with the scope and complexity of the mission—because eliciting the consistent support of the president, Congress and American public will require it to deliver on its promises, including a high quality and safe product, on time and within budget.

Finally, as with all organizations undergoing change, NASA will also need to help its workforce distinguish between aspects of the transition they can and cannot control, so they can focus their energy and attention on where they can reasonably make an impact. This will help enlist the enthusiastic support for which the NASA workforce is renowned. And, if done properly, such transparency will go far to bolster their ability to, yet again, change the agency’s mission.

The bold new human spaceflight vision, despite its many challenges, offers huge opportunities for success and benefits to the nation and humankind.  If any organization can succeed – and boldly send humans where none have gone before – it is NASA and its partners.

Gail S. Williams retired from NASA in the fall of 2010 after a 36-plus year career.  This piece reflects only her personal opinion and not that of NASA or any of its employees.

Related reading:

U.S. space program's leadership black hole

What happens to NASA's shuttle workers now?

On Leadership Roundtable: What’s next for NASA

Gallery: Private companies have liftoff

Full Washington Post space shuttle coverage

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