(originally posted at www.opennasa.com)
The first time I ever thought of culture, I did so kicking and screaming. It was World Cultures class in ninth grade. Everyone had to take it. I didn’t know why I needed to take any kind of culture or history class at the time. My eyes were on the future, my head in the stars. Thinking back, I have no idea what I was thinking.
Culture is cool. I get that now. And it’s important, too. It’s a unifying force and the unseen hand of progress and failure, tolerance and pride, beauty and injustice. It’s always there and might be the most important factor in our success as an agency and nation.
What is NASA culture to you?
Maybe you’re a student, imagining an exciting career working on cutting edge space technology. Maybe you’re a NASA employee, passionate about exploration yet frustrated about the progress and leadership of the agency. Maybe you’re an informed outsider, captured by the allure and romanticism of space exploration yet not professionally involved in the endeavor.
Or maybe you’re one of the many once-starry-eyed space camp kids who dreamed of floating adrift (tethered, of course) against the backdrop of space or feeling the firm lightness of lunar dust scattered at your boot step, now for whatever reason disillusioned by the reality of space travel and the structure of the organization charged with the task of realizing those dreams, at least from the public sector perspective.
Disillusionment is a powerful word. My MS Word thesaurus says disillusionment is “disappointment caused by a frustrated ideal or belief”. The key there is the ideal or belief part. You can’t be disillusioned without an ideal or belief to become frustrated over. Forever the optimist, to me that means there’s hope- because if there are still ideals and beliefs to become frustrated over, at least we don’t have to worry so much about generating them. When there’s a frontier to explore there will be ideals and beliefs about its exploration. So let’s work on the frustration.
NASA culture to me is like a tale of two cities. On the one hand, you have a foundation built on the highest standards of technical excellence driven by a bold spirit to challenge humanity’s collective concept of what is “impossible”. It is a culture of determined men and women, who dedicate their lives in public service to the passionate pursuit of exploration. It is the side of integrity, selflessness, toughness, and willingness to adapt to overcome any obstacle.
On the other hand, you’ve got the degenerating side of NASA culture—the dark side that is almost never openly discussed. The side of complaint, frustration, finger pointing, selfishness, and anger. It’s the 800-lb requirement-gorilla in the room. It’s the contractor-civil servant cockroach crawling out of the AC vent. It’s the pesky gnat of the leadership void buzzing in your ear.
Ok, I’ll stop before diving too far into the metaphorical zoo of NASA shortcomings. You get the idea though—it’s the side of cynicism and our good friend, disillusionment.
I recently read one person’s opinion that people waste their entire lives at NASA, slaves to the burgeoning bureaucratic behemoth of false dreams and misplaced idealism. “NASA will never change,” this opinion seemed to suggest. “You should save your breath.”
Well, if everyone thought that, of course nothing would ever change.
Forgive the high-minded political fluff rhetoric for a moment and consider that the greatest aspect of NASA culture, of American culture, is that it CAN change.
Admittedly, I’m a victim to the wave of idealism and change sweeping across the nation and the world, a product of the times, a testament to the sometimes brash naïveté of youth and innocence and the generation that’s supposed to lack the attention spans to stick with it for the long haul and all that jazz, but I don’t care. I’d rather live in this city than the one across town.
I still get goose bumps when I watch Apollo 13. I’m still honored every day to walk the same halls as the great men and women before me. And I still think NASA can be a model for the world as a leader in exploring frontiers, whether they come in the form of the physical frontiers of space or the idealistic frontiers that drive men and women to challenge themselves to reconsider what they think of as “impossible.”
Sure, I’ve seen some disillusionment, but mostly I’ve seen quite the opposite in this agency. I’ve seen high-level managers opening discussions about how to tear down organizational barriers. I’ve seen young engineers seeking out and finding outstanding mentors in uncommon places. I’ve seen mentors go to extraordinary lengths to instill not only a sense of technical excellence, but a genuine sense of honesty and integrity that is arguably even more important to sustainable engineering projects—and life for that matter—than data analysis or raw technical knowledge.
So, in short, I’ve figured out that culture is, in fact, cool. And important. And I’m inspired by its potential to drive change at NASA, despite the uphill battle it may seem at times. (If my World Cultures teacher is reading this, I humbly apologize for falling asleep in your class.)
What do you think about NASA culture?