Astronaut's Video Satirizes NASA Bureaucracy

A short, satirical video produced by an astronaut and posted on YouTube is generating a lot of discussion within NASA and the space community. The video focuses on making sure the agency's bureaucracy doesn't crush innovative ideas and dissenting opinions.

The video, written and filmed by four-time space flier Andrew Thomas, tells the fictional story of a young engineer at Johnson Space Center in Houston who has a great new concept for a spacecraft design.

Her attempts to convince her managers go nowhere. They dismiss her proposal with administrative objections even as they assure her that her efforts are valued.

"We don't want to repress dissenting views or innovation like this. That's not how we operate," says a fictional manager in the video. As he speaks, a caption appears and poses a question: "Are you sure?"

Raising Awareness

The film shows how innovation-blocking behaviors are "all too common" at the space center.

Thomas says he put the little movie together using a borrowed camera and his home computer. The actors are employees of either NASA or its contractors. Last summer, they all worked on a team project organized by Johnson Space Center's senior management as part of a larger effort to enhance innovation and open-mindedness.

"They were told to be creative not only in their approach to answering the questions they were asked, but also to be creative in the way that they presented their findings and recommendations," says Debbie Denton, manager for diversity and special projects at the center's human resources office.

Thomas and his teammates were specifically asked to look for reasons why new ideas get ignored or blocked. "And I wanted to try and capture those in a way that people would understand, in a way that would resonate," says Thomas.

Heather Hava, who plays the role of the engineer, says Thomas took stories and anecdotes that the team discussed and wove them into one storyline. "He compiled all that and wrote a little dramatization of all of our experiences," she says. "It was a composite of many, many people's experiences."

Management Reacts

The video was shown at a retreat for NASA managers last month. One manager, Wayne Hale, posted it on his blog and wrote that he found it "extraordinarily funny and not at all funny."

Hale noted that after the space shuttle Columbia accident, the investigation board said NASA's culture had stifled dissenting opinions from engineers who were concerned about potential dangers. NASA's leadership has been trying to change its culture. "Still, it is hard to tell how effective the change effort has been," Hale wrote.

Thomas says he initially wasn't sure how his video would be received. "Because these are, after all, fairly sensitive issues and they're important issues. I have to say I'm very gratified by the upper management of the agency who made a point that this should go public so that people could see it."

Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert with American University in Washington, D.C., has written about how NASA's original high-tech culture has become more bureaucratic. He says that what struck him is that the managers in the video didn't engage in technical discussions. Instead, they focused only on the administrative process.

"That's not the kind of agency you would like to have running rocket programs," says McCurdy. "It might be OK for Social Security check disbursement, but it sure isn't going to be good for rocket science."

McCurdy notes that culture change is hard, but that "culture consists in large part of the stories that people tell about their agency. And if they tell stories like the one we're just seeing, it's a way of communicating their concern."

Justin Kugler, a member of the team that made the video, says there's been a lot of reaction. "I know I personally have received e-mails from people saying, 'You all nailed this, this is spot on,'" he says.

Kugler says his team did identify positive changes that managers can make to encourage innovation and new ideas, but those didn't get featured in the movie. "Just seeing the video by itself out on YouTube," he says, "you don't necessarily get that other half of the story." He added that the group is considering making another video.

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