NASA: Thoughts on New Beginnings

With former Astronaut Charlie Bolden poised to take the helm at NASA, and Lori Garver as Deputy, I dusted off a letter of mine published in SpaceNews, January 21, 2002. Much of it still applies. I offer a partial reprint.

NASA exists as a paradox, a quandary, a political dilemma.

Unparalleled in the federal government, NASA’s mission is bounded only by the expanses of the heavens and limited only by the human imagination. Our inability to consistently communicate the wonder and magic of space to decision-makers who hold our purse strings stifles our progress.

NASA personifies the innate, never-say-die human spirit that conquers barriers and pushes beyond limitations. NASA ignites the spark that flames the human desire to improve, to learn, to grow. NASA embodies the pursuit of knowledge in unexplored regions of the universe, as well as the universe of the mind.

NASA is a uniquely American icon.

The public absorbs NASA images each day from TV and print advertisements, motivational posters, books, television programs and movies. NASA symbols adorn T-shirts, toys and trinkets. As a brand name, NASA evokes awe and wonder and delight beyond the borders of our nation, yet carries little leverage with political heavyweights with the confines of the beltway.

NASA may boast of a constituent base as broad as the world community or as narrow as the astronaut corps, or scientific investigators tied to a specific mission.

Private industry may applaud NASA for opening the frontier of space and awarding large aerospace contracts or complain bitterly to Congress that we prevent entrepreneurs from gaining affordable access to space.

NASA may appear an untapped reservoir of risk-takers who dream of barriers yet to be broken or an aging agency run by risk-averse, pocket protector-wearing bureaucrats. 

So I offer a few thoughts to our Next Administrator:

You have the power to contradict the contradictions. You bring new eyes to NASA. Yes, you’ve been here before, but you will ask new questions at this new beginning. You will mark this agency with priorities unique to your interests. This part of the dance can be quite uncomfortable to those unused to dancing.

Change of any kind can be unsettling to those wedded to the security of the status quo.

Douglas Adams once said, “There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something more bizarre and inexplicable.

I’ve never met you, but those who have speak highly of you. I listen with great encouragement. If you were to ask me what I want for you, it would be this:

Vision

To recognize all that’s wrong with NASA, yet behold an uncut diamond ready to be shaped and polished with steady, skilled hands.

Wisdom

To hear from opposing viewpoints both inside and outside the power structure, season them with common sense and insight, and form fair judgments.

Discernment

To detect deception when presented as truth, to distinguish between public good and personal gain, and recognize the strings attached to any good deals.

Integrity

To say what you mean and mean what you say, stand by your word, and create an environment of trust.

Patience 

To allow time to develop the correct solution rather than the fastest answer, and withhold judgments until the facts are clear.

Courage

To walk the narrow path and stand for what is right, not what is easy; to stretch yourself and others beyond the comfort zone.

Humor

To take yourself lightly and laugh easily.

I welcome your fresh look at who we are and what NASA has become in the years since you were here last, and assume you’ll bring a healthy skepticism about what we take for granted. I welcome your genuine concern for shaping NASA into a nimble and responsive federal agency.

I look forward to probing questions, which force us to look honestly at ourselves.

Yes, you will bring change, and change can be unnerving. Will you wield a scalpel? Will we feel the pain of incision? I, for one, prefer the pain of incision to the malignancy of indecision.

 Welcome home to both you and Lori! Best wishes as you navigate the confirmation process in the next few weeks.

8 Comments

Filed under NASA, space

8 responses to “NASA: Thoughts on New Beginnings

  1. Hank Jarrett

    I will be printing this letter and hanging it on my wall. It truly inspires me that this kind of thinking is still out there and I hope Bolden and Garver do the same. Those of us who do this work for the love of what NASA was, sometimes still is, and what it can be again, need to never loose hope. There are more of us than the naysayers will ever know.

    I need to get back to work. For at least today, I am once again inspired.
    Hank

  2. Barry

    Beautiful essay Beth!

  3. Dave Huntsman

    ” I welcome your genuine concern for shaping NASA into a nimble and responsive federal agency.”

    Beth, why do you say this? To my knowledge, Charlie has never shown any interest – ever – in NASA reform; or even in space policy. For those of us who have openly called for internal NASA reforms in the past – often suffering consequences as a result – to project a reformist image on someone who – to my knowledge – has never spoken on or worked for NASA reform could be seen as naive by some.

    • bethbeck

      I hear you, but EVERY day is a fresh start in my world. I’m voicing my hope for the future. I like to aim high and reach higher. Even if I fall short, I’m further than where I started. :-D

  4. Stacey

    Put me in coach…

  5. Beth, are you planning to attend the first public meeting of the Augustine Panel in Washington on June 17, 2009 at 9am? I would love to Email you some info on the Cytus Space System and why we must not abandon the SPACE SHUTTLE. Help! Dan cinedog@netzero.net 323 436 0534 24/7

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s