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.
As Atlantis lifted off Friday from the Kennedy Space Center, America bid farewell to its space shuttle program. It was an emotional moment for the country, and, in a less public way, represents a major loss for NASA workers. It was also something perhaps less obvious: a leadership moment for Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator.
So far, Bolden’s handling of this inflection point in America’s space program can serve as a lesson for leaders faced with the challenge of closing beloved initiatives—a difficult process no matter how rational and justified these decisions may be. As the centerpiece of NASA for 30 years, the space shuttle brought further glory to the agency that gave us the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, not to mention steady employment for generations of employees.
In a speech delivered to the National Press Club on July 1, Bolden did what a good leader should do under such circumstances: He made an emotional connection to his people, was honest about the facts, acknowledged the loss they’ve just experienced while putting it into larger context, and painted a vision that realistically yet reassuringly connects the past with the future.
Bolden, himself a retired Marine Corps major general and a four-time shuttle flight veteran, has instant credibility with NASA's employees. And in his speech to the National Press Club, he drew on his own career to establish that emotional connection. “I spent 14 years at NASA before leaving and then returning to head the agency. Some of the people I respect most in the world are my fellow astronauts. Some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle. I'm not about to let human spaceflight go away on my watch. I'm not going to let it flounder because we pursued a path that we couldn't sustain.”
Early in his remarks, he addressed head-on the concern that last week’s final shuttle flight marks the end of America’s dominance of spaceflight. Naysayers, he said, “must be living on another planet.” While he didn’t dwell on the sense of loss that some NASA employees must be feeling, he did add, “We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking the necessary – and difficult – steps today to ensure America’s pre-eminence in human space exploration for years to come.”
In his more private leadership role inside NASA, one presumes that 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.
Not surprisingly, though, it’s those future plans that have been the primary focus of Bolden’s public speeches: “It is vital that we keep exploring. …So we keep generating new knowledge about our planet and our universe and new solutions to the challenges our planet faces on many levels," Bolden said. And, like other charismatic leaders, he set this future within the context of NASA’s history—from its founding 50 years ago by the “young President Kennedy” to the re-articulation of its mission now by the “young President Obama”, who has challenged the agency to explore asteroids and, eventually, Mars. His evocation of youth effectively yet subliminally connects the mission of NASA to what’s modern, preparing the next generation of NASA workers, as well as Americans generally, for a new phase in the agency’s development.
None of this, of course, comes easily. We can only assume that what Bolden conveys so effectively in public gets translated with equal conviction and passion when he addresses NASA employees internally. External political pressures to reduce government spending will undoubtedly make it harder for NASA to achieve all of Bolden’s – and Obama’s – lofty goals. And the extensive investigations of two of NASA’s darkest moments, the tragic Challenger and Columbia disasters, have already revealed NASA’s ongoing struggle with internal organizational problems and their impact on decision-making. While NASA hasn’t cornered the market on dysfunctional organizational culture, the stakes are arguably higher (and higher profile); and to the extent that they persist despite being identified in both investigations, these management hurdles won’t just disappear with the end of the shuttle program.
Shuttering an icon represents not only a logistical challenge for an organization but also a profoundly emotional one for its employees. So far, Administrator Bolden seems to be handling the passing of the shuttle era masterfully; to continue to do so, he’ll need to attend to the varied feelings of loss, even while articulating a path for passionate re-engagement with the future.