The Culture of NASA as Shuttle Flights Begin Anew

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When the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed, the investigating board declared it was as much the result of human failure as of falling foam. As the shuttle program resumes under new NASA chief Michel Griffin, it faces more changes ahead.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

NASA now says the earliest possible launch time for the space shuttle Discovery is late next week. The shuttle was due to blast off two days ago, but a faulty hydrogen fuel sensor forced NASA to cancel that launch two hours before liftoff. This is the first shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster, and no one wants to take chances. The Discovery has undergone a series of technical fixes, but the accident investigation board noted that the underlying causes of the Columbia accident were cultural and organizational. NASA, it said, was overconfident, under pressure, and concerns weren't always heard. Over the last two and a half years, NASA has tried to change. It's unclear how much has really improved. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

Sometime last year, John Young walked into the astronaut office at NASA. Young is a veteran astronaut, he had walked on the moon and is sometimes called NASA's conscience. He asked how many people thought NASA had changed its culture. About 100 people were there, and he said nobody raised their hand. He told that story to the Associated Press. Shortly after, NASA's then administrator, Sean O'Keefe, responded. He said the real answer to whether NASA had changed was being measured by a consultant.

Mr. SEAN O'KEEFE (NASA): Rather than have me or anybody else assert that it is or isn't properly focused or corrected or broke or whatever else--those are neat bumper stickers, but they sure can't be assessed in any way unless you have a metric and a measurement to do so.

KESTENBAUM: The measuring was being done by a company called Behavioral Science Technology. It's run by Thomas Krause, who has a PhD in psychology. He says his company has worked with about half of the Fortune 100 companies. Their method of measuring culture? Surveys asking employees if they agreed or disagreed with various statements like, `I feel free to speak up if I have a concern.' Workers had to rate their feelings on a scale from one to five. BST consultants also coached NASA managers.

Dr. THOMAS KRAUSE (Behavioral Science Technology): We would teach principles that underlie good decision-making.

KESTENBAUM: I mean, I think to a lot of people that seems sort of obvious, right?

Dr. KRAUSE: Well, yeah. I mean, that's the stuff--that's the thing about culture stuff. The things that are obvious aren't done. It's one thing to say something is obvious; it's another thing to get an organization of 19,000 people to do that in the day to day.

KESTENBAUM: This February, BST published a 115-page report filled with graphs showing improvement. And then NASA terminated its agreement with Behavioral Science Technology. BST was about halfway through its $10 million contract. Krause says his company has had over 1,700 clients, and that's only happened a few times.

Dr. KRAUSE: It's very unusual. And it's--we've never had a situation before where we were working with the seniormost leaders in the organization and they canceled it.

KESTENBAUM: OK. So can I give you a survey?

Dr. KRAUSE: Sure.

KESTENBAUM: NASA's culture is improving.

Dr. KRAUSE: Strongly disagree.

KESTENBAUM: Krause says NASA abandoned a process of reform that was working. A NASA spokesman says the space agency simply decided to carry on with the work internally and said BST had given NASA a good start. But part of the reason for the change appears to be that NASA's new chief, Michael Griffin, doesn't think culture change is something you can graph. Griffin was asked in a press conference in April if he thought NASA's culture had improved.

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (NASA): I don't know because I don't know how to measure cultural change. You know, culture is something that you feel.

KESTENBAUM: Griffin later said that he felt fixing the safety culture meant working on things that are taught in kindergarten. Quote, "Listen to what other people have to say, pay attention to their opinions," end quote. Since the Columbia accident, NASA has tried to address bigger systematic problems. It set up a quasi-independent safety organization that is supposed to be immune to budget pressures and schedules.

Still, the track record for organizations trying to change their culture is not good. Most fail. That's the perspective of Sidney Dekker. He's a professor of human factors in aviation safety at Lund University in Sweden.

Professor SIDNEY DEKKER (Lund University): You can't just assign a project manager and say, `Now, OK, your project for the next two years is change our culture,' right? Just like another project manager had to solve the phone problem. It doesn't work the same way at all.

KESTENBAUM: You need external help, he says, everybody has to be on board, and it takes years, many years. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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