Our kids are bored with the space program and this is a real problem. Since starting this site, I've had the great pleasure of meeting hundreds of new people. It's a great perk of this gig.
At NASA and by association its large contractors, I've met astronauts, flight controllers, designers, technicians, PR people, website designers, video producers, educators... the list goes on.
Most of the individuals I've met within NASA and their main contractors are extraordinary.
They all have something troubling in common. This super talented group of people, tasked with leading America in space, all operate like they have one hand tied behind their back. Almost every one of them qualifies as extremely talented with huge ideas, hopes and dreams...
They are not given the opportunity to try anything new. New ideas are viewed with suspicion and fear.
From my outside perspective, the culture of NASA is one that fears change on every level.
I've heard story after story of people getting in trouble for having twitter accounts. And not because they were posting sensitive materials or information. Just for having a personal account and opinion about things. There can't be a hint of fun, or sarcasm in anything public because "someone from congress might be watching". The overall trend, after talking to dozens of people about it is fear on the part of their leadership.
The result of this culture long term is a series of programs with no real progress to speak of. Sure there are isolated individual victories and progress, but no progress in the large scale visionary items.
The only motivator across the board seems to be the threat of funding cuts, job loss, and program cancellation.
This flies in the face of logic for me. Here's the group we all refer to when we talk about technological leadership and innovation. In reality, the 40 year relative stall in the space program we've had since the end of Apollo is a result of poor culture.
If the culture is one of fear and reaction to change instead of boldness and creation of change, how can the organization as a whole create inspirational endeavours for the people that it serves? What about our school aged kids? How can we open a frontier to the world without boldness?
On top of the culture of fear and adversity to change is a mission to present a public image that's polished and perfect. Public speakers are all dry and "everything is going as planned". Don't believe me? Tune to NASA TV for 20 mins. You'll get the idea. If you can stay awake.
I was part of a 1 hour show yesterday that I didn't even watch when I got home because being there in person was interesting, and the resulting broadcast was not. Think about that: I couldn't even watch a show I spent half of my day (unpaid) being a participant in the creation of. That's really not good.
The public image is dry to the point of being sterile. It's not that the super talented people aren't capable of having fun. In fact, off camera, I've found just the opposite. They are a group of very intelligent, thoughtful and fun people. Their culture of sterile public image is what fails to inspire anyone.
Gary Vaynerchuk, author of "Crush it!" says
"You will lose because people can sniff out a poser a mile away."
If the organization tasked with opening the last frontier isn't taking risks and being transparent about it and then putting on a public face of uber polish, what word do we use for that?
Ugh, if that's true, then it's time for change and I'm tired of waiting.
The only way to change this is to allow for more commercial companies and private individuals to be able to take the bold risks that opening this frontier requires. This is the way the entire global transportation system works. Government provides assistance in infrastructure and financial backing to get things going and help keep them going. Companies take risks and innovate.
Governments have deep pockets and can help fund projects who's short term financial returns are unsure. Things like infrastructure and research for uncertain benefits. Companies can't fund those types of projects because they are driven by the ability to generate some sort of profit.
On the other hand, companies can adapt better to changes and take risks that are not acceptable to Governments. They can make bold moves if the prospect for reward is even remotely realistic.
Our kids need something to look forward to. They know that something is really wrong with the space program whether or not they know exactly what that is. After all, kids are masters at spotting posers.
“It’s not good enough to have a generation of kids who think that it’s okay to look forward to having a better version of a cell phone with video in it. They need to look forward to exploration, they need to look forward to colonization, they need to look forward to breakthroughs” - Burt Rutan
Exploration, colonization and breakthroughs happen with the right culture and the right organizational setup. NASA has the brilliant people it needs to get this right. We need to untie their hands and let them be brilliant.
Let's start getting this right today. The frontier is waiting.