Space

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A lot of movies have glorified NASA and its can-do culture over the years. Now though, there's a new video on YouTube, a satire written and filmed by an astronaut. And this glimpse into life at the space agency doesn't exactly show the right stuff. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: An astronaut named Andy Thomas put this little movie together. He shot it with a borrowed camera and produced it on his home computer. The actors are people who work for NASA or its contractors and the video is getting a lot of attention in the space community. It was recently shown to senior managers at a retreat. One NASA manger has called it, quote, "Extraordinarily funny, and not at all funny."

(Soundbite of music from "Law and Order")

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is Law and Order, at Johnson Space Center in Houston that is. A young engineer has a great new idea.

(Soundbite of music from "Law and Order")

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her supervisor's office one year ago.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Fictional character in satire - engineer): So I've been thinking about this better way to design the spacecraft and here's some sketches of what I've been…

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her supervisor is immediately dubious.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Fictional character in satire - supervisor): Wow. This is a pretty significant change from where the project office is doing things.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The supervisor raises one objection after another. There's no requirement for this, we've never done anything like this. Other managers just dismiss the idea.

Unidentified Man #1 (Fictional character in satire): We don't think this idea is technically sound.

Unidentified Woman #1: Well, okay, but the present way we're doing this is actually flawed. I've looked at that and honestly it's way too expensive. As a matter of fact, our current approach is just really bad engineering.

Unidentified Man #1: You know, that might be, but it doesn't matter. I can't afford to care about that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He gestures to a huge flowchart on the wall.

Unidentified Man #1: My job is to make sure the project follows this plan.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The engineer gets increasingly frustrated as she's told, hey, we really appreciate what you're trying to do here, but this isn't what you're supposed to be doing.

Unidentified Woman #1: How can I possibly contribute and be innovative if I have to ask for approval for everything I want to say?

Unidentified Man #1: We're not talking about that here. We don't want to repress dissenting views or innovation like this. That's not how we operate.

GREENFILEDBOYCE: As he says that, a video caption asks, are you sure? That's just one of the questions posed by the film's creator who says this story may be fiction, but it's based on people's real experiences.

Mr. ANDY THOMAS (Astronaut, writer of satire): What I hope will happen is that people will take an inward critical look at themselves and the way they've been doing things and perhaps reassess.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Astronaut Andy Thomas wrote the script while working on a team project organized by Johnson Space Center's senior management. The team was asked to look for barriers to innovation, reasons why new ideas get ignored.

Mr. THOMAS: I wanted to try and capture those in a way that people would understand and in a way that would resonate.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he didn't want to just do a power point presentation or write a boring document. He says he wasn't exactly sure how the team's video would be received.

Mr. THOMAS: 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One reason these issues are sensitive is that similar problems at NASA have been linked to two space shuttle disasters. Before those accidents, some engineers identified potential dangers, but their ideas were new and managers didn't understand their importance. Howard McCurdy is a space policy expert with American University. He's written about how NASA's original high-tech culture evolved into a more bureaucratic one. He says, what struck him in the video, was that managers didn't have a technical discussion. Instead, they talked about administrative things.

Mr. HOWARD MCCURDY (Space Policy Expert, American University): That's not the kind of agency you would like to have running rocket programs. It be might be okay for social security check disbursement, but it sure isn't going to be good for rocket science.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The video ends with its fictional engineer at a new job, at Google pitching another idea.

Unidentified Woman #1: And you know, I think the public is going to be really excited.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her new manager is excited too. He offers all kinds of support.

Unidentified Man #2 (Fictional character in satire - new manager): In my mind, my responsibilities work for you.

WERIHEIMER: In fact, he says, her idea is so good they could probably even sell it to NASA. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: To watch the YouTube video, go to npr.org.

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