Making Do at NASA

N

ow that the results are in on the causes of the Columbia disaster, it's abundantly clear that the accident stemmed from more than just mechanical failures. According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the disaster was rooted in NASA's "can-do" culture. While this ethos produced what the board called "tenacity in the face of seemingly impossible challenges," it also created a tendency to operate "too close to too many margins."

This culture has been the driver of great achievement. It helped the United States win the space race, put the first human on the moon, and repeatedly mesmerized the nation with pictures from distant planets. NASA's can-do attitude enabled crews to bring the ailing Apollo 13 safely back to Earth and to find a way to fix the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. And it could have led to the rescue of Columbia's astronauts. There is little an agency with such a culture cannot do when it is given a clear task and the resources to accomplish it.

But it's that very culture that has insulated NASA from reality. It encouraged managers to ignore, even suppress, the danger signs that led to the Challenger accident; to downplay the calls for greater care from one blue-ribbon commission after another; and to reject engineers' pleas for further imagery that might have saved the Columbia astronauts.

It also led NASA to stifle dissent, whatever the source. In the Challenger case, the dissent came from Morton Thiokol, the company that designed and manufactured the solid-rocket motors that failed early in the flight. In the Columbia case, the dissent came from a group of NASA engineers led by their soft-spoken chief, Rodney Rocha, who was rebuked time after time by can-do program managers.

Organizational culture does not arise and endure on its own. It is the product of leadership, environment, organizational structure and systems. It gets handed down from one generation to another through training, recruitment and reward, and is reinforced through the budget and promotion system. The managers who made the decision not to take a deeper look at the potential damage to Columbia didn't adopt the can-do spirit by accident. They advanced through the ranks because they believed in it.

The Columbia board is right that organizational culture was at the root of the accident, but NASA's culture has become more "make-do" than "can-do." NASA made do with a shuttle design that was riddled with vulnerabilities because it was the least expensive.

NASA also has made do with a personnel system that is encrusted with needless bureaucracy and unyielding penury; a contracting system that has created a slow but steady evisceration of accountability between the agency and the United Space Alliance, which runs the shuttle program; and a hierarchy that makes it impossible to hold any one person accountable for what goes right or wrong. Most importantly, NASA has made do with a budget process that has produced one cut after another, and a "cheaper, faster, better" philosophy that has conditioned managers to count every penny and fear every mistake. NASA wanted "the cosmos on a shoestring," as RAND researchers noted in a 1998 report on the agency's budget pressure. It got it.

The nation was willing to bear any burden and pay any cost to conquer space in the 1960s, but not to build a space truck to carry supplies to a missionless space station in the 1990s. As a result, NASA went from a can-do budget under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to a make-do budget under every president since. Hence came the penny-pinching mentality that led to the back-to-back Mars meltdowns in the late 1990s, and the very real fears that managers could lose their jobs, if not the whole Space Shuttle program, if they failed to keep the aging vehicles flying.

These fears were reinforced at virtually every turn, including the first months of Sean O'Keefe's tenure as NASA administrator. O'Keefe's forthrightness during the Columbia investigation, as well as his commitment to rebuilding the agency, is admirable. Yet, his early cost-cutting campaign fueled make-do worries about who and what would survive, especially as the federal budget deficit soared.

O'Keefe also reinforced the make-do mentality when he fired NASA Inspector General Roberta Gross six weeks into his tenure. The dismissal involved "a judgment call," O'Keefe told The Washington Post, and was based almost entirely on the fact that Gross had been in office too long. "Seven years argues for a change," he said. The firing gave managers and contractors a breather from the kind of experienced audits and investigations that might have made them just a little more reluctant to cut corners.

NASA will recover only if it rebuilds the can-do culture that the Columbia board now blames for the accident. O'Keefe's recommendations for a new personnel system will help, as will a careful sorting of priorities. But O'Keefe must also rebuild the morale of the agency. Although NASA managers can never be forgiven for not taking a second look at the possibility that Columbia had been fatally wounded, they were doing exactly what the agency had long told them to do: Make do with what you are given. Columbia and its crew deserved better.


Paul C. Light is director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service and a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.

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