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Inside NASA: High Technology and Organizational Change in the U.S. Space Program.

What happened to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration? In the salad days of Apollo, the 1960s, the space agency was the darling of America, a sparkling success story in a decade gone wrong. By the 1980s it was the gang that couldn't shoot straight, a characterization deployed by Bryant Gumble on the Today show during one of the launch-delay fiascoes that have plagued the space shuttle since its first launch. In 1986, when the Challenger exploded, the question moved from talk shows and cocktail parties to headline news.

One answer heard often was that NASA had experienced institutional ossification. It had grown old and feeble. Howard E. McCurdy sets out to explore that explanation in his new book, Inside NASA. This is a study of comparative institutional culture. It pits the young, successful NASA of the 1960s against the aging bureaucracy of the shuttle era, which he likens to "the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Internal Revenue Service--still professionally run but no longer among the superstars.

McCurdy is well qualified for this undertaking, which was researched and written under contract to NASA. He is professor of public policy at the American University in Washington, D.C., and he has written another history of the space program for NASA, The Space Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological Choice. Through extensive research, interviewing, and employment with the agency, he himself has been immersed for many years now in NASA culture.

His conclusions are driven by his methodology. He consulted some of the recent literature on corporate culture and some on the institutional culture of government agencies. He also examined some of the secondary literature on the history of the space program. His primary sources, however, are NASA employees, past and present. He interviewed 45 senior NASA officials, some serving as early as 1965, some as late as 1985. Curiously, McCurdy identifies these interviewees by number, not by name; he reports that their names can be had from the NASA History Office in Washington, D.C. For additional data, McCurdy sent a questionnaire to a random sample of 800 NASA engineers, scientists, and administrators; remarkably, 704 replied, a response rate of 88 percent.

McCurdy believes that NASA culture in the Apollo era was a mixture of the institutions that combined to form NASA. He singles out two for special attention. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) formed the core of NASA. The Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), Wernher von Braun's rocket team, joined NASA in 1959. Additionally, in the Apollo years of the 1960s, NASA imported many executives, civilian as well as military, from the Air Force ballistic missile program. McCurdy attributes much less importance to other institutions, such as the Naval Research Laboratory space science team and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech, which also joined NASA early on. The dominant NASA culture, he maintains, was shaped by engineering agencies engaged in aerospace research and military applications.

The Apollo culture that sprang from these roots valued in-house technical capability--scientists and engineers doing enough bench work themselves to know how to supervise the contractors, who did 90 percent of NASA's business. These professionals, says McCurdy, believed in exhaustive testing, in measured risk-taking, in hands-on familiarity with the technology, and in middle-class values of honesty and integrity. They viewed themselves as exceptional people, from whom much was expected. They were attracted to NASA by the pioneering aura of the moon program, and they organized for that task by centralizing control in Washington and administering Apollo like a military operation: local initiative guided by central authroity. They were a cando crew, free to speak their minds, open to new ideas.

The cultural devolution

Between Apollo and Challenger, this culture changed. It became more bureaucratic. It lost much of its pioneering spirit. The demography of the work force shifted toward professionals and administrators, away from the technical and craft personnel who had done the hands-on work in the early days. Authority shifted away from the headquarters and out to the field centers, where it was hoarded jealously. The agency became risk averse, more interested in survival than accomplishment, as if you could have the former without the latter. The whetstone of criticism on which an earlier generation had sharpened its skills came to be seen as an abrasive force threatening to grind away the veneer of achievement that masked a base of bureaucratic inertia. One executive interviewed by McCurdy lamented that "our meetings are not as open as I think they used to be in the sense of having good technical arguments and penetrating questions asked." Rather, he reported, executives would respond defensively to the penetrating question, asking "what the hell has he got against our program?" This is just the picture of NASA that emerged from the Rogers Commission investigation following the Challenger accident.

One characteristic of NASA remained surprisingly constant. In spite of a widespread impression that the space agency no longer attracted execptional people as it had during Apollo, McCurdy maintains that the professional staff is about as good now as it was then. His evidence is a 1991 study by the National Academy of Public Administration and the testimony of the respondents to his questionaire. Only elite academics, he reports, see NASA professionals as stereotypical government bureaucrats, second-rate people unable to make it in the private sector or at leading research institutions. He may well be right that NASA professionals are as good as ever, but the proposition begs the question of why such good people would let their agency deteriorate so.

This question notwithstanding, McCurdy concludes that high-performance cultures, such as the one gathered at NASA for Apollo, are inherently unstable. Many of NASA's ailments also afflict comparable institutions, both public and private. Bureaucracy grows and becomes self-serving. It seeks survival instead of achievement. The excitement of new initiatives gives way to place-saving. In NASA's case, these natural tendencies were compounded by the loss of in-house competence and hands-on experience, the erosion of middle-class values of honesty and hard work, and the burden of ever more complex spacecraft and ever more demanding regulatory requirements of a swollen government.

Unasked questions

Much of McCurdy's argument rings true, though it begs at least three additional questions. First, has McCurdy fallen into the anthropologist's trap of evaluating a culture by the testimony of those embedded in the culture? By relying primarily on the evidence of NASA professionals, McCurdy limits himself to what his subjects can see. He presents at face value, for example, the agency perception that exceptional people came to NASA in the 1960s, that they were open and candid in those days, and that they valued honesty and hard work. All of this sounds like the generic myth of the golden age; it may or may not be true. But McCurdy made little effort to test these assertions.

Nor did he question the proposition, apparently advanced by his respondents, that the culture of manned spaceflight, the culture that grew out of the NACA, ABMA, and the Air Force missile program, completely defined NASA. Veterans of NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory would argue that they had a very different culture and that they too helped to shape NASA.

Nor does McCurdy pay more than passing attention to the other phenomena that might explain what happened to NASA. Maybe the answer wasn't in the culture at all. The failure of NASA may reflect nothing more than declining budgets. In real dollars, and as a percentage of federal expenditures, NASA receives about 60 percent of what it did in 1965. In today's dollars, the Apollo budget would approach $100 billion. Maybe, as some critics have long maintained, Apollo succeeded by drowning its problems in money. Maybe NASA was not so great then; maybe it is not so bad now. Given $100 billion, NASA could perhaps put up a fine space station. The difference is that we were going to the moon to beat the Soviet Union in the Cold War; no such goal drives space station development.

In the end, NASA's problem might simply be spaceflight itself. We know in retrospect that going to the moon was a comparatively straightforward project, daunting and heroic, to be sure, but ultimately doable. Developing lowcost, routine, versatile access to earth orbit is a far more intractable problem. So too is long-duration spaceflight. Putting humans in space has proved to be far more expensive, far more difficult, and far less useful than we imagined in the 1960s. Even the heroes of Apollo could not make the shuttle fly reliably and economically, could not make the space station practical. Perhaps the worst ossification of NASA culture is manifest in the agency's death grip on an outdated mission.
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Author:Roland, Alex
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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