Monday, February 9, 2009

Astronaut's Video Satirizes NASA Bureaucracy

This morning on NPR there was a great story about a video (see below) which has been circulating and supposedly causing a bit of discussion amongst NASA's top officials. The video was produced by a former astronaut, Andrew Thomas, who was part of a group put together by top senior administrators at NASA's Johnson Space Center to enhance innovation and open-mindedness. Rather than write a report or make a PowerPoint, Thomas decided to produce a video and while his production skills could use some work, he got across his message very effectively.

After watching the video, I can certainly relate to a number of the points and can testify that I've run into a lot of the same things here. However, if I were to make the video, it would probably be a little different. The part about the project managers is spot on. They really are all about schedule and can certainly get a "tunnel vision" approach. On the other hand, my branch chief is actually very supportive of new ideas and will go to bat for one if it is the best technical choice. Now granted, this idea still must meet certain cost and schedule restraints but all in all I've found the individual branch chiefs to be pretty receptive to new, technically better ideas.

Overall though there is a larger culture of reinforcing "what we've done before" rather than asking, "what is the best way to do this?" Part of this is because of the massive amount of data and testing required to certify a new process, design, and/or material for manned space flight. This certification costs time and money up front and therefore even if the new idea will ultimately save money, the project office is usually too short sighted and conservative as they simply need to meet this year's cost and schedule constraints and sadly cant afford to look further into the future.

You have to admit to having a problem before you can solve it and discussion of that problem is the first step towards actual change. This video both vividly portrays a problem and has caused people to start talking about that problem, making the video very effective.