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Leading the end of one space era, and the beginning of another

IN THE SUMMER of 2011, Administrator Charles Bolden led the end of an era for NASA--the shuttering of its longstanding space shuttle program. A year later, he oversaw the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars, and the beginning of a new phase for America's exploration of space. Now, a year after that, he reflects on the leadership challenges and the organizational changes that have accompanied NASA's shift. Bolden spoke with the Post's Lillian Cunningham in this interview for the On Leadership series.

In the "Micro Management Stories" video above, you can watch him speak about the emotional end of the shuttle program. You can also read the longer version of his interview in the text below. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. How would you characterize your leadership style?

A. I’m not a blunt person by any stretch of the imagination. I’m probably too easy and I could be more direct, but I just never learned how to do that. I find that very difficult. But I try to be very truthful, and I try to make sure I’m giving people my honest assessment, whether they like it or not. I tell my NASA employees the only thing I want from them is the technically correct answer. I don’t ever want them to think about politics, even though we’re at NASA headquarters. There are a couple of us in the agency who get paid to think politically, and they’re not among them.

I’m interested in your reflections on the end of the shuttle program, because that has to have been the biggest organizational change NASA has yet faced. What would you say the greatest leadership challenge was?

Probably the biggest challenge was helping people to understand that the thing we all knew we needed to do, it was now time to do. The nation expects us to be explorers. They expect us to be dreamers. We knew that eventually we needed to phase out of shuttle and get NASA to phase into exploration and let industry take over the issue of access to low Earth orbit.

We’re a huge contractor workforce, literally tens of thousands of people. At the height of shuttle, we probably had 100,000 contractors working for NASA, most supporting the space shuttle. That was their life, and we had to help them understand that they had made an incredible contribution, but it was time to move on.

What has it been like to go through that downsizing? How did you do it?

With great difficulty. I always refer to NASA as a family. There’s the immediate family, and then all the other people—all the cousins that come along. Our contractors are all the cousins in the family. And as much as you love them, they’re there because you don’t have enough family members to do everything you need to do. The gut-wrenching, really hard work of operating a shuttle, preparing it for each flight, was done by the massive contractor workforce, and that was United Space Alliance (USA).

When we finished the last flight, Atlantis was the cleanest vehicle we ever had. They were very proud of that. They wanted to make sure that, if somebody changed their mind, Atlantis would be able to turn around and go fly again. You had no idea—no idea—of the loyalty of the workforce. Those were contractors, and they worked right until the very last day as if they were getting ready to fly again.

I remember running on the beach down at the Cape, where my wife and I had gone down for STS-135 [the final mission of the shuttle program]. You always run into people. I was up one morning running on the beach, and I passed this young couple. They were middle aged, and they stopped me and they said, “Are you Charlie Bolden?” And I said, “Yeah.” They said, “We work for USA.” And I figured, oh my gosh. These guys are going to give me some sob story and they’re going to make me really feel bad. But they said, “We just want to let you know, we are as proud as we can be. We voluntarily decided that we’d take a buyout, because we feel there are people who have not had the experience we had. We’ve done all we can do. We just want to thank you for having had the opportunity.”

And I, right there on the beach, I kind of just collapsed.

They are just incredible people. And not many people in government, except maybe military, have an opportunity to be around people like that—who are that dedicated, that motivated and that flexible to go with programs that we evolve because the Congress or the White House or somebody else says let’s go do that. So I’m a blessed person to have an opportunity to be around them and work with them.

What about some of the talent issues you’ve faced as a result—morale within the organization, retention, attracting the new talent you need especially given the budding commercial space industry?

The one thing about NASA is that there is no retention issue and there is no recruiting issue. We cannot hire the people who want to come work for us and who represent an incredible wealth of potential for the future workforce, and so that's a leadership challenge for us. Under this constrained budget environment, we’ve had to impose a type of hiring freeze. The way we’ve chosen to do it since I’ve been administrator is we have a two-for-one policy, where we have to have two people leave the workforce in order to bring one on board. What we’re looking for are what we call “fresh outs”—we want people fresh out of college, we want people from other professions, we want new ideas to help us as we try to mature NASA into an organization that’s dedicated to exploration.

We have an aging workforce, and that’s because people love what they do, and we don’t have a lot of talent that’s leaving. So our problems are trying to right size the workforce while making sure we’re getting in fresh blood, fresh ideas.

So you don’t see the commercial space industry as a competitor for talent?

Quite the contrary. The commercial space industry is an absolute necessity for our success. We’ve tried to explain that to Congress, and I think very slowly they’re understanding. If we aren’t able to facilitate the success of a commercial space industry, we’re going to be reliant on the Russians in perpetuity to get our astronauts to and from space. We don’t want to be there. We don’t want to be where we are. We just paid $454 million a few months ago to extend our dependence on the Russians for Soyuz flights to the International Space Station. That was for one flight up and one flight back—$73 million per seat to another country. The American public should demand that if we’re going to spend that kind of money, it ought to be spent on American companies. Commercial space is going to be the lifeblood for NASA and the nation, and it’s going to be the only way that we can do exploration.

What’s the biggest management challenge you face today with NASA? 

I’ve got ton of managers, and we can get the job done. Our challenge is leadership. And the biggest leadership challenge today is keeping the workforce motivated, keeping the workforce believing that we are doing what the nation wants us to do. Leadership-wise, the biggest challenge is also to get the American public to believe in what we do and the fact that it’s important. If the American public decides that they don’t mind having another nation replace us as the leader in the world in terms of exploration and scientific discovery, I will regret that because it will mean that I’ve worked all my life to keep us No. 1 and the Congress and the American public have decided that’s not important.

If we’re not able to continue on the march of exploration toward doing what the president asked us to do—humans to an asteroid in 2025, humans on Mars in 2030—it’s a generational thing. It will not be me, and it will not be my granddaughters unfortunately who will be the first people to set foot on Mars. It will be their grandkids. It’ll skip a couple of generations.

So you see your leadership challenge today more as an external one with Congress and the public than an internal one with NASA employees?

I have spent the vast majority of my life leading from a second-place position. I always tell people, I love being a deputy. The job of a leader who’s not out front is to influence, and a good leader prepares and influences the real leader, helps them understand and get focused on the mission. You could talk to anyone at NASA and they probably know more detail about everything we do than I do. I can’t possibly know what everybody else knows, and so their job is to influence me. My job is to influence Congress and the White House.

That’s my job—to influence decision makers, to influence members of Congress to drop all this stuff about ‘if the president suggested it, we’re not going to vote for it.’ And that’s all it is right now. Space has never been a partisan activity until now.

Does the asteroid redirect mission, in which you send an astronaut to one that’s in lunar orbit, fulfill President Obama’s goal of going to an asteroid in 2025?

My answer is going to be flaky. The first segment we’ve got to do. We’ve got to identify and characterize many more asteroids than we have done so far. That’s essential for the protection of the planet. That’s critical.

The second segment, which is the redirect mission—it's a robotic mission, it doesn’t involve humans at all—that’s really necessary for us to develop the technologies that we need to advance exploration. Is it absolutely necessary before you send humans to Mars to do that? No, but it sure would be nice to have all that risk brought down because you’ve done it with the asteroid redirect mission. If that’s successful and then we can get humans to an asteroid in lunar orbit, that more than fulfills my understanding of the president’s direction.

And this is subtle. I have this discussion with my science friends all the time and those who are purist. The president said by 2025 we should send humans to an asteroid. What he meant was, you should send humans to somewhere between Mars and Saturn, because that’s where the dominant asteroids in the asteroid belt are. But no, he didn’t say that. He said: humans to an asteroid.

There are a lot of different ways to do that. There are probably thousands of ways to do it. I think we have come up with the most practical way, given our budgetary constraints today. We’re bringing the asteroid to us.

And so whether I put an astronaut on an asteroid that’s in lunar orbit or put an astronaut on an asteroid that’s still in orbit around the sun between Mars and Jupiter, I don’t care. What’s important is: Have them there.

Joel Achenbach contributed to this reporting.

See also:

Ending NASA's space shuttle program

The head of NASA on the asteroid mission

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