Tag Archives: culture

Space Invaders in Nation’s Capitol

Crazy week at NASA. Space Shuttle Discovery completed her cross-country piggy-back ride from California back to Florida. We announced the discovery of water on the Moon…and more on Mars. The 2009 Astronaut Class and the STS-127 crew came to visit NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. We hosted a Tweet-up with Space Tweeps and the STS-127 crew. (Thanks all you Space Tweeps who joined us!)

STS-127 Crew @ NASA HQ

STS-127 Crew @ NASA HQ

Since I work human spaceflight issues, I love having our astronauts come up to DC. So, I’ll share a few stories with you from this week.

Jules Verne in Orbit:

Veteran Astronaut Dave Wolf talked about his time with the Russians on Mir vs. time on Shuttle and Station. He described Mir (precursor to Space Station) as Jules Verne-like with ivory keys on the control panel and a red leather chair. Who needs a chair in Zero-G, if you think about it? But Dave said he spend time in the red leather chair as best he could on orbit. Velcrow, perhaps?

Smells in space:

Julie Payette answers question

Julie Payette answers question

Both Canadian astronaut Julie Payette and Dave Wolf talked about how the U.S modules on Space Station differ from the Russian side — look, feel, taste and smell. Dave said the smell of the Russian modules reminded him of his time on Mir. You gotta’ wonder exactly what that means…right? But then, if you think about it, our senses are assaulted walking into someone’s home — smell of cookies or fried foods, smoke or new carpet, candles or dirty clothes. Space Station is their home in space. They eat, sleep, exercise, work for up to six months at a time. They will leave their scent, I assume. Hmmm.

Fear of Falling:

Astronaut Chris Cassidy

Astronaut Chris Cassidy

First-time astronaut Chris Cassidy spoke of his first moments after opening the hatch for his spacewalk. He looked out to see the Earth spinning under him. As he watched, he realized he held onto the handle with a death-grip. His brain had to process the reality that he wouldn’t fall…he would float.

Our human brains are gravity-wired. Even with years of training, astronauts have to mentally, as well as physically, adjust to the differences zero-g present.

One-way ticket to Mars:

When asked if any of the STS-127 crew would jump at a ticket to Mars, Chris Cassidy spoke of family and how they factor into the decision. He and Commander Mark Polansky both said the decision might be different if family could go along.

Would you go, if given the opportunity — knowing you would never see our blue planet or other Earthlings EVER again?

Wouldn’t it be cool, though, to have that choice? Someday our planet will be asking our global citizens for volunteers on humanity’s quest for knowledge. Someday.

In the meantime, we’ll host space invaders fresh from our orbital outpost 220 miles overhead.

STS-127 Lift Off

STS-127 Lift Off. Credit/NASA

The Office of Space Operations hosted the brand spankin’ new astronauts for an early breakfast. Our Exploration colleagues joined us.

Astronaut-Africa Connection:

Breakfast with 2009 Astronaut Class

Breakfast with 2009 Astronaut Class

I spent some time with Dr. Kate Rubins, one of 14 members of the 2009 Astronaut Class. She’s an expert on infectious diseases — HIV, Ebola and Lassa viruses, which primarily affect West and Central Africa. She’s been given her “call-sign” already by her fellow astronauts: Bola (as in E-bola). I really enjoyed hearing about her time in Africa working with the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  She lamented how so many diseases are preventable with education and simple steps.

Kate is taking action to relieve suffering by founding the Congo Medical Relief Organization to provide medical supplies to the poverty-stricken.

You can become a fan of Congo Medical Relief on facebook. Their first support site is: L´Hôpital Général de Référence de Kole in a remote region of central Democratic Republic of CongoKate told me the Astronaut Office supported her work and encouraged her to continue her efforts. So cool!

Now, if we can only link NASA advances in supporting human life in the harsh reality of space to relieve those facing harsh realities here on our home planet.

Side note: After spending time in Africa (as you can obviously tell from my Africa blogposts), I left my heart there. I would LOVE to find a way to collaborate in some way — taking the best NASA has to offer to lift up those who can’t help themselves. That’s the missionary in me, I guess. Ideas on how to do this?

Viral Space Fever:

Space Shuttle on launch pad.

Space Shuttle on launch pad.

I spoke with many of the Astronaut Candidates about the importance of sharing the magic of space outside our circle of influence. They are SO, SO eager and enthusiastic now.

Jeanette Epps, 2009 Astronaut Class, told me,“We’ve been given this amazing opportunity to live out our dreams.

She and the others can’t imagine NOT wanting to share this experience with anyone willing to hear it.

Sadly, my experience predicts otherwise.

Editorial comments (i.e. Soapbox Moment):

Sharing the astronaut experience through public appearances — school visits, events, speeches, and more — must be approved by the Astronaut Office in Houston. The decision to honor the request or not is viewed in light of the mission: sending humans safely to space and back. Here are a few considerations:

  1. Fact: Our Astronaut Corps is shrinking with the close of the Shuttle program in 2010.
  2. Fact: We have fewer slots for longer duration missions on the International Space Station (which increases time needed to train).
  3. Fact: Everyone (or almost everyone) wants a chance to meet an astronaut.
  4. Fact: We have too few astronauts to meet all the requests for public appearances.
  5. Fact: Every minute an astronaut spends attending a public appearance translates into one minute less training for a task on a mission.
  6. Perception: Mission training is more valuable to NASA than public appearances.

Here’s what I have observed of the astronaut culture over the years:

An astronaut who enjoys “speaking with the public” risks being seen as less technically-credible by fellow astronauts.

A less technically-credible astronaut may jeopardize selection for the highly coveted slot on space missions — which take years to secure. Astronauts who are the best “Space Ambassadors” may risk ridicule as “attention-seekers.” Ah, those pesky unwritten rules on how to get one of those few seats on a spaceship leaving Earth.

Several members of the new Astronaut Class commented that they’d been advised to keep a low profile. Yet, I want them to have the HIGHEST of ALL profiles. I say, BRING it ON: hand-held video for YouTube, blogposts, Twitter and Facebook updates.

Let the world be part of astronaut training – right along side them!

 Spacewalk: Coming out of the Space Station hatch.

Spacewalk: Coming out of the Space Station hatch.

One of the former Astronaut Office chiefs told me they worked hard to balance mission-critical training with all the outside non-mission-critical requests for their time. Public outreach/educational events remove the astronauts from the job each was selected for — going into space. Training requires single-minded focus.

‘Really hard to argue against that logic. Mission-critical sounds like it should trump anything non-mission-critical. Right? But really, isn’t that just an assumption within our traditions and culture?

I really don’t envy the Astronaut Office folks. I can only imagine the pressure they’re under to juggle all the competing requirements for their time. I also get our NASA culture: we stick with what’s worked well for us in the past. But…is that the only way to succeed?

Can tradition handicap us, get in the way of creative solutions?

Enter technology — tools that could lighten the load and create new ways to share the training process with the rest of the world. Social media tools make sharing so simple. At one point, we were all afraid of e-mail. Now we can’t live without it for accomplishing work.

So here’s what I would do — in my imaginary world where I’m King of the Universe:

I would rewrite the equation: 1/2 unit technical + 1/2 unit inspirational = 1 Astronaut

NASA HQ employees crowded around STS-127 crew.

NASA HQ employees crowded around STS-127 crew.

In my opinion, social media should be a ‘given’ throughOUT the entire training process. Equip the astronauts with the iPhone 3GS (video) so they can instantly post pics and video inside the simulators, water training, T-38 practice time, and more.

Allow the tax-payer an opportunity to participate and interact WITH our incredible national treasure — the space travelers who’ve broken the bonds of Earth gravity.

If I were King, I would craft a career path that includes time at NASA Headquarters for EACH and EVERY astronaut in the Corps — prior to promotion consideration of any kind. (I realize this sounds harsh for uprooting the family structure, but kids/family members can benefit from time in our nation’s Capitol.) The time would be split evenly:

  1. six months in the Office of Legislative Affairs (sharing NASA’s story with Members of Congress and staff) and
  2. six months in the Office of Public Affairs (learning and practicing communication methods and representing NASA at outreach-type events outside NASA).

Our future as a space-faring nation depends on the will of the people, as expressed through decisions by their elected representatives.

STS-127: Discovery docked to Space Station

STS-128: Discovery docked to Space Station

Our astronauts and our images of the heavens offer our citizens a window into the universe. Our images show the story of what’s beyond our reach. Our astronauts tell the story — how it feels to GO beyond our reach. Yes, training is crucial to get the job done. But, the real job, is getting OUT THERE…in the Universe! We need political will to get there.

Astronauts embody the human drive to push beyond the boundaries of our knowledge.

Yes, the technical aspects of the mission are CRUCIAL. We have human lives at stake. Totally. Absolutely! And, we, at NASA, are incredibly good at conducting missions safely. However, without the storytelling — how it tastes and feels, complete with hair-raising near-misses and close calls — we may not have future space missions to conduct.

Humans are addicted to the drama behind the story.

Why else would we have an entertainment industry that we throw money at — for the privilege of losing ourselves inside the storytelling in novels, movies and TV shows?

So let’s tell our story…using every tool we’ve got!

IMG_0739

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Filed under Africa, culture, Earth, federal government, leadership, NASA, poverty, space, water

Mike Boon’s Vuka! Wake-Up Call

Ancient African proverb: “A man without culture is like a zebra without stripes.”

South Africa: 1996

“Mike Boon, a white, was on the mean streets of Soweto photographing anti-apartheid graffiti when he was caught by the mob. About 1,000 supporters of the Pan African Congress – motto: one settler, one bullet – had beaten him, doused him with petrol and were preparing to burn him alive in a horrific spectacle known as necklacing.

“They had the tyre, although they never put it around my neck, and they were shouting for matches,” he says. Mr Boon only escaped a hideous death because he speaks fluent Zulu, and was able to persuade his captors that he was there to promote their cause.”

Paul Rodgers, The Independent, 20 October 1996

Yikes! Meet my buddy Mike.

Mike on his Game Reserve

Mike teaches us about animal poop on his Game Reserve

Mike, the multi-lingual ex-special forces peace-loving folk music guitar-picking minstrel, who founded a marketing company in the 1980’s in a rags-to-riches story. His vision: creating community-based, culturally-targeted delivery of product messages into the hands of people on the streets and in the townships of South Africa.

In order to understand an issue, Mike seeks to understand the root cause — the people, and how they view the world.

Under his leadership, Group Africa grew into a multinational organization of 7000 employees operating in over 25 countries in just 17 years. As he tells it, Mike grew tired of constant international travel and the burden of corporate leadership, and sold his business to an American public relations giant.

For his second act (or third, really, if you count his time in the military), Mike launched the Vulindlela™ Network to help bring about personal and organizational VUKA! — interventions to foster cultural and social understanding and shared vision. Mike’s work brings about reconciliation. Mike’s bio states:

“His work unashamedly acknowledges and deals with the inherent racism, prejudice, anger, fear and denial…”

Tuff stuff, the challenges Mike takes on. What can I say? He’s Superman. So, by now you’re probably wondering how I know Mike. Let’s take a trip back in time.

Texas: 1974

I met Mike Boon in 1974 at a Southwest Texas Rotary International meet ‘n greet for incoming and outgoing exchange students. Mike was going to high school in Gonzales, Texas for the year. I attended San Marcos High School, and had been selected to spend a year in Denmark. Mike and I hit it off immediately.

What I remember most about Mike? His to-die-for accent, easy laugh, and deep dives into the meaning of life. He taught me a bit of Xhosa, an amazing clicking language; and introduced my family to a more efficient method of left-handed eating — keeping the fork tongs-down and the knife in my right hand. We Americans tend to eat right-handed with the tongs facing upward, switch the fork to the left hand tongs-down to cut, then switch back to the right hand tongs-up to eat.

Mike faced a mandatory 2-year term in the military when he returned home to South Africa. I couldn’t imagine the soft-hearted, deeply thoughtful, easy-going boy carrying a gun. Much less shooting it. Much to my surprise, but not really because Mike always exceeded expectations in everything he undertook, Mike went into the military and earned a spot in the elite special forces. The letters he sent from active duty had sections literally cut from the pages.

Mike always wrote me about fighting injustice, opposing the forces of evil, standing up for what’s right, understanding the core of humanity. Deep stuff. Mike stuff.

Mike and I stayed in touch on and off through the years. Our lives took so many different turns. I knew Mike had written a book, and that he’d done well. I had no idea HOW well. We lost touch about 10 years or so ago when my Christmas letters started bouncing back. I kept sending them, they kept returning. Enter the age of the internet. Mike found me a couple of years ago through NASA. I’d spent a few years as Editor of NASA.gov. I’d left digital fingerprints everywhere.

Our friendship spanned decades and continents, yet we’d not seen each other for 35 years. Until this summer.

Summer: 2009

ZambeziCoverPageI learned so much about Mike, the man, during our visit to South Africa. I had really only ever known the boy. Spending time with Mike and his family helped fill in the gaps. Ok, not gaps. Craters.

Reading both Mike’s books before our visit, helped remind me who Mike is — Mike, the philosopher. No depth is ever deep enough for him. He’ll always dig down and uncover another layer of understanding. We are alike that way. I really need to understand what drives things, what makes pieces fit together. I appreciate the way Mike approaches a problem and finds a way around an impasse.

Mike deals with culture in his ground-breaking 1996 book, The African Way: The Power of Interactive Leadership. Reading this book, I understood, for the first time, some of the cultural issues we face, even today, in the United States.

Mike describes the “Western” view of time as individually-focused — control is internal. For instance: “I missed the bus.” Yet the traditional African view of time is circular, where “the past is more important than the future.”  In Zulu, the expression would be, “The bus left me.” In Xhosa, “The bus died on me.” Both are externally-controlled. (p. 6-7) He notes that the pace of business based on an internal or external focus is fundamentally different. On the question of when it’s time to “move on” — forgive and forget — to order to repair the nation after apartheid was abolished, Mike offers this: “The ‘African’ view would be that a considerable amount still needs to be done to settle the damage done by apartheid.”

In a circular view of time, where the past is more important than the future, how long is long enough?

I absolutely have no answer, but at least I understand the context.

MikeBoonZambeziReconciliation seems the focus of Mike’s second book, Zambezi, The First Solo Journey Along Africa’s Mighty River. 1n 2002, Mike embarked on a solo expedition down the Zambezi River from source to sea in a kayak, which had never been attempted before. Missionary-explorer David Livingstone traveled by boat down the Zambezi in the 1850-60’s, and nearly lost his life. Others attempted the journey though the centuries, but never the entire river. Mike knew he would be traveling through war-torn countries and areas of civil discontent. His trip included: Northwest Zambia, Angola/Zambia border, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. The river itself has unchartered areas with unknown rapids and falls.

Mighty Zambezi @ Victoria Falls

Mighty Zambezi @ Victoria Falls

In his own words, here’s Mike’s assessment of his chances on the river:

“In addition to the political and geographic challenges, I had to prepare myself for any number of medical eventualities. Injury and trauma could be caused by assault or bites from snakes, hippos, crocodiles, and other animals. Possible illnesses included malaria, hepatitis, dysentery and infection. I needed to be able to self-administer any number of treatments, such as suturing wounds, setting fractures and carrying out amputations.”

Mike indeed encountered near-death in a whirlpool, abduction by military guards, close encounters with crocs, hippos, and elephants. His 99-day physical challenge brought emotional healing from Mike’s ‘military and corporate combat’ demons. The Zulus named Mike, Chunge,” which means “he who achieves even though the road be difficult and torturous.” Perhaps he needs to replace the word “road” with “river.”

Mike, Man of Many Years, at last reconciled with Mike, Idealistic Boy of Long Ago.

During our visit in South Africa, I learned more about Mike’s work through the eyes of his former employee, Doug, who accompanied us to the Soweto Township, home of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Through Doug, I learned that Mike created the Lesedi Cultural Village for business partners to experience tribal life and better understand the people their products would reach. He recreated village life and brought in families to live and share their culture with visitors. He is no longer associated with Lesedi, which has become a successful tourist attraction, but he met his need to teach the “Western world” partners about African culture.

Primary School has new kitchen.

Primary School has new kitchen.

We visited an impoverished Township primary school. The school principal told us that the result of one of Mike’s VUKA! experiences, the bankers returned to volunteer with the kids and build a kitchen for the school. (They still need a regulation soccer field.)

Day Care has paint and furniture.

Day Care has paint and furniture.

We spent time at a pre-school day care in SnakePark, the poorest section of Soweto. Two mothers couldn’t bear seeing children without care and on the streets. They formed the Big Smile Little Faces Day Care. As a result of Mike’s VUKA! experience,  a business group returned to volunteer and provide essentials for the children — desks, chairs, rugs, book cubbies, and more.

VUKA! landmark

VUKA! landmark

When I wanted to take pictures of the painted towers in Soweto, not far from Nelson Mandela’s home, Doug pointed out the towers were painted for the community as a result of a Mike’s VUKA! program.

Mike mixes rich and poor, black and white, male and female, young and old  — drawing them together through a transformation process that strips away preconceived  cultural bias and builds bridges of shared humanity.

I saw evidence of his success whereever we went. Mike’s ground-breaking reconciliation/facilitation work is sought at the very highest levels of business and government, including Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Mike was flown to the Middle East to resolve settlement disputes between the Jews and Palestinians. Is there anything Mike can’t do? Slow down, maybe. Hardly likely.

Mike’s new challenge: an 8-month river adventure through even more dangerous territory than the Zambezi to draw attention to prejudice in all forms.

But, I’d like to give Mike a different challenge, as if the elimination of prejudice weren’t enough. I’d love to bring Mike to NASA, to challenge our entrenched, bureaucratic culture. I’ve only been introduced to snippets of Mike’s work to bring about reconciliation.

The more I see, the more I want Mike to bring VUKA! to NASA.

Just think, we have our very own whirlpools, rocky embankments, hippos, crocodiles, and infected thinking to offer a tempting challenge to Mike. We’ve had 50 years to develop ruts and dysfunctional business patterns.

Those of you at NASA know what I’m talking about. Folks at NASA field centers and Headquarters often mistrust each other. Organizations build walls to keep out competing other organizations. Power is not often shared well. Threat to power…well, I shudder at the thought. Many individuals and organizations operate under the fear of retribution — for thinking or speaking outside what is deemed culturally acceptable by individual managers. Sad, but true.

Not all of NASA can be described this way, of course, but enough exists to warrant at good look. Good news, though. We have a new leadership team at NASA. What better time to bring Mike in to wake us up, transform our thinking, ignite us for the future? We have much work to do.

Let’s VUKA!

Annie's Treehouse

Mike welcoming us to Annie's Treehouse, an aMAZing retreat he built for his wife!

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Filed under Africa, culture, federal government, leadership, NASA, space

Culture: Straitjacket or Springboard?

I’m thrilled to be featured as a Gov 2.0 Hero on GovFresh.com. I received Luke Fretwell’s request while I was in the Orlando Airport, returning home from a previous scrubbed STS-127 mission. Made my day. (THANKS Luke!!) How cool that he thought of me — one of the many fish swimming around in the huge, vast ocean we call the federal government. My initial reaction:

Do I get a cape? I mean really. Don’t all hero’s wear capes?

Luke sent me a list of questions for the profile:

  1. What was your path to Gov 2.0?
  2. What area of government offers the biggest opportunity for improvement via Web 2.0 tools?
  3. What’s the killer app that will make Gov 2.0 the norm instead of the exception.
  4. What part of Gov 2.0 most excites you?

What is Gov 2.0? Easiest explanation: mash-up of Web 2.0/social media tools in government processes. For starters, agencies finding creative ways to “do business” through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, etc.

As I answered the questions, I kept coming back to the same sticking point — culture. An organization’s culture dictates its aptitude for “picking up” new technology to meet daily challenges. Hmm, cultural aptitude tests. Might be incredibly telling.

My buddy, Mike Boon, describes culture in his book, The African Way: The Power of Interactive Leadership,

“Culture is not an independent thing. It is what we are as people. Our culture guides us in how to behave, and it is the expression of our values and beliefs.”

Luke’s Gov 2.o Hero profile questions focus on what technologies exist to transform government. Transparency is the current buzzword with our new President. Transparency is the underpinning of the Gov 2.0 movement — to make what we do inside the government freely and easily available to all those outside the government.

Personally, I love it. But not everyone does.

Transparency can be quite threatening, especially if one’s power base is built on insider knowledge that is closely held and doled out like currency to buy more power.

Will even the most “killer app” technology transform our federal government overnight. Probably not. We are Uncle Sam, after all. Uncle Sam isn’t known for being quick on his feet, now is he? But, what about Aunt Samantha? She just might be a fast-talkin’ two-steppin’ little whipper-snapper who runs circles around ole’ Sam. (Yes, I’m from Texas. Can you tell?)

Do I think new technology will change how we do business in the federal government? Do I think Web 2.0 will transform our decision-making processes from muddy to clear? Actually, I do. But it totally depends on the leadership and culture of the organization.

A risk-averse culture views change with suspicion and animosity.

A risk-averse organization is unlikely to leap into the arms of new technology. More likely, I picture the “concrete boots” reaction. Perhaps we need a VUKA! intervention to shake up our more entrenched organizations. Vuka is a Nguni word that means: ‘to come alive’, ‘resurrect’, ‘bring to life’, ‘wake up’.

Quick note: I’m traveling with family to South Africa and Zambia. In South Africa, we’ll spend some time with Mike Boon and his family. I know Mike from high school. He was a Rotary Exchange student. Amazingly, we’ve kept in touch ALL these years. Mike’s company, Vulindlela, specializes in organizational interventions. We will accompany him to an event in Soweto, outside Johannesburg, to see how this works. Here’s a quote from his website:

VUKA! is dependent on an organisation’s willingness to build in processes that ensure the sustainability of the change that will definitely have occurred in each individual!

Maybe I’ll learn something about VUKA! to bring back to the job to help jump-start Gov 2.0 within our organizations. But even without intervention, we have pockets of open culture within our government already. I work with some amazingly creative, intelligent, secure, energetic, enthusiastic folks at NASA who are chomping at the bit to gallop into the future.

What can I do?  Open doors, supply tools for the journey, and get out of the way as the stampede rushes past!

Does this make me a Gov 2.0 hero? Unlikely. But, hey. I’ll take the title! I wonder what I’ll look like in a cape? ;)

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Filed under federal government, Gov 2.0, leadership, NASA

Honor Past but Celebrate Future, PLEASE!

Apollo 40th Logo

Apollo 40th Logo

These next few days portend a frenzy of Apollo anniversary activities.  Let’s see what we’ve got on the agenda:

Saturday, July 18:

Sunday, July 19:

  • John Glenn Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum will feature the Apollo 11 crew and legendary former Johnson Space Center Director Chris Kraft. Charlie and Lori are invited, as well.

Monday, July 20:

  • Various media events for the Apollo astronauts,n and a private lunch.
  • Newseum 40th Anniversary Educational Forum featuring hunky George Clooney’s dad, Nick, as moderator. Panelists include: Apollo astronauts @TheRealBuzz Aldrin, Charles Duke and Alan Bean, along with STS-125 crewmember John Grunsfeld and Goddard’s Dr. Laurie Leshin.
  • Evening Reception at the National Air and Space Museum. Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson will MC the event honoring Apollo astronauts and former Apollo employees — of whom we have a handful still working at NASA Headquarters. Plus, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will accept the Ambassador of Exploration Award on behalf of the late President John F. Kennedy.
Apollo Employees @ HQ

Apollo Employees @ HQ

Tuesday, July 21

  • Capitol Hill Congressional Gold Medal Presentation to Apollo 11 crew.
  • Appreciation Social with NASA Headquarters employees to honor Apollo astronauts.

This list is the tip of the iceberg. I can’t begin to list all the Apollo celebration events hosted at the NASA field centers.

Yes, we have much to celebrate at NASA. We’ve done some amazing things never thought possible four decades ago. We have every right, and responsibility, to reflect and honor the courage, dedication, daring, and engineering genius that lofted humans to the heavens. How boldly incredible is this accomplishment? Really! Bravo to all who played a part in the foundation of our space program.

But, here’s my quandary: We’ve spent a great deal of time planning for this anniversary. Just like we did for NASA’s 50th birthday. Meetings, telecons, vidcons, brain-storm sessions, product prep, website creation, and much, much MORE to pull together a respectable list of things to do.

Some part of me can’t quite reconcile all this activity. Does an agency retrospective propel us where we want to go tomorrow?

I pose this merely as a question, rather than a conclusion. Believe me, I get that we need to honor those who got us here. I understand the need to look back and marvel at our greatness. It’s our culture. If reliving these momentous achievements (which they TOTally were) makes us smarter for the difficult endeavors we face in current and future programs, then YAY!

But, here’s what I’d like to see: NASA expending the same effort showcasing all the amazing things we’re doing now, and will be doing in the future. For instance:

  • Clean Water challenges to replicate waste water recycling like we practice in space. We are pioneers in sustainable living. Our technology enables crewmembers on Space Station conserve and reuse every drop possible.
  • Orbital 365 events around the globe for every additional year we live/work/play on our incredibly complex orbital outpost — International Space Station.
  • Light the Candle community celebrations held EVERY remaining Space Shuttle launch, AND for significant engine test firings for new vehicle development.
  • Light Gardens created from home-made solar collectors to remind us how delicate and fragile the balance is between creation and consumption of energy, as our international crew of six onboard Station can attest every day in orbit 220 miles over our heads.
  • Star-gazing festivals where we turn out the city lights and look to the skies together. Our brightest star might just be Station zipping across the horizon.
  • Ticker Tape Parade

    Ticker Tape Parade

    Ticker tape parades for all Earthlings returning to the home planet. (Wait! Who even knows what “ticker tape” is? At least I can show you what it looks like in this picture.) So, in keeping with the times, how ’bout virtual confetti blasts synchronized through an iPhone app?)

I’m merely suggesting ideas to spark your imagination and get the conversation going. I’m not saying these celebrations would even work. But, then again, you never know ’till you try. Right?

Let’s face it, looking back is SO much easier than looking forward — which involves peering into the unknown. Though…that whole “unknown” thing is something NASA is particularly good at. ;)

So, what’s stopping us? Come on! Let’s “pay it forward.”  Tap into that amazing creative energy we have. Celebrate NASA’s today and tomorrow, while we honor the past.

Happy Apollo 11 anniversary!

First step for man...

First step for man...

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Filed under federal government, leadership, NASA, space

Work Space: Is Yours Out of This World?

Quick Post. I’m on my way to a creative writing course for a few days. I wanted to share these thoughts before I go.

I attended a Google DC Talk yesterday with Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson on his new book, “FREE, the Future of a Radical Price.” (Thanks Jesse Thomas of Jess3 for the invite!)

Google DC is located north of the White House, not far from the new DC Convention Center, only a short distance from NASA Headquarters. Though Google DC is close by, it felt light years away in culture.

The offices are open and colorful with fun, funky furniture. I felt at home right away.

Side note: You should see my house. My home office is painted lime green. Yes, I know. You’ve raised your eyebrows at that. But really. If you stepped inside, you’d feel hopeful, energetic, renewed. Color makes a HUGE difference — at least in my life.

So my quick thought before I head out the door.

I’ve wanted for years to RE-decorate some NASA “creative spaces” at Headquarters with fun, colorful, spacey decor since WAY back in the 90’s when our new Deputy-to-be Lori Garver was running Policy and Plans. At the time, I proposed we re-model our Concourse break room after the Motley Fool model — the first business I’d seen at the time decorated with LOADS of color, as well as ping pong and pinball machines for stress release and team building. I was told we couldn’t because we only lease the building. Bummer.

But I haven’t given up the idea. I’ve simply changed my focus.

We have deadzone hallways in the center of the building on every floor (already equipped with sink, refrigerator, soda machine) that could be creative spaces. All we need to add are funky chairs, PAINT, and a self-serve coffee bar.

A place where employees could chat over ideas, unwind, recharge, and build community.

I met this week with Loraine Bjorendahl, Events Coordinator at Origo, to discuss an upcoming project (really aMAZingly cool project that you’ll go CRAZY about) that we’re planning. She mentioned the Swedish tradition of “Fika,” or coffee break, which is a time where they break the day, gather together, and share thoughts. She described Fika as a time of relaxed reflection where the best ideas flow.

So, here’s what I’m thinking:

Create “Fika Space” at NASA, a space where we can gather together to “share ideas” in a caffeine-charged color-soaked funky-chair inspired environment.

What say you? Are you with me? Arm yourselves with paint brushes. CHARGE!!!

:-D

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Filed under NASA, space

EarthShip NASA: Exploring the American Pioneering Spirit

I was looking for a file on my computer and found this proposal I wrote (WAY back when) to send out a traveling crew to connect NASA‘s can-do pioneering spirit with folks out in the heartland who do the very same thing…but for their families and communities.

I hoped to ignite passion in Earth-bound citizens of this planet, to push them to the next level in their personal lives…stretch…dream…reach for the impossible. In my mind, I envisioned space gardens and space murals and community space festivals across the country.

Note: Podcasting was new back then. Twitter and YouTube didn’t exist. (I inserted those features after -the-fact.)

At the time I proposed this idea, NASA’s chief of Strategic Communications didn’t believe in traveling shows. He didn’t think NASA should expend our efforts on Earth in this way.  He had a point. But I see things differently. I believe our job is to share what we do best:

we’re the dreamers, the curious, the problem-solvers, the doers.

Yes, we build spaceships and scientific instruments. I get that. But if you think of NASA like a “reduction sauce” in the show, Top Chef, boil down what we do at NASA and you get this:

we make things happen against all odds.

I believe we need to ignite that spark in other Earthlings — the desire to push out the boundaries of what we know. We need generations-to-come of planetary citizens to celebrate the can-do spirit, right where they live…even if their feet never leave this planet.

We have new leadership coming to NASA with the Senate confirmation hearings this week for Charlie Bolden and Lori Garver to come take the helm. Culture can change. Policies can take different directions. Who knows, maybe this kooky idea will take hold with new folks coming in. Ideas that lay dormant can take root…with a little care and feeding. Really. I’ve seen it happen. (Remember, I’ve been around NASA for a LONG time.)

I have a more polished proposal at work, but I thought I’d share the one I cranked out on a flight home from the OshKosh airshow, where the inspiration first hit me.

EarthShip NASA

Mission:

365-Day Mission to explore and celebrate the pioneering spirit deep in the heartland of our country from small towns to urban regions.

Purpose:

Ignite passion for exploration and cultivate the pioneering spirit – whether at home or off our planet.

NASA relies on individuals with curiosity for the unknown to explore unconquered territory outside the boundaries of our knowledge.

Definition:

A pioneer is someone who claims the “first” of any category — the first to attend college in the family, the first to grow a pumpkin patch in the neighborhood, the first to build a playground for handicapped children, the first to study read 50 books during summer, the first to paint a mural with glue, etc.

Logistics:

NASA “terra-naut” team will be composed of five NASA employees from different ethnic backgrounds and ages (including one astronaut, if possible) who will commit to 365 days on the road.  Terranauts will blog/tweet and post video/pictures from the road, celebrating “pioneers” in every stop along the way.

NASA Terranauts will feature the local pioneers on video segments for NASA TV, blogs, and podcasts (plus YouTube, Twitter, GovLoop, and all the new social media tools).

An advance team will plot the cross country course and work with the community leaders to prepare for EarthShip’s arrival — identifying playgrounds to be cleaned up or space gardens to be planted, murals painted on school walls, etc.  The EarthShip team will arrive to set up camp and prepare for the Pioneer Festival.  NASA will offer a portable “Space Fair” in the community, and hold contests for Pioneering awards for all ages and categories.  The Advance Team will work with the community of culture-specific categories.

The EarthShip will consist of a converted Winnebago outfitted to look like a spaceship, and complete with “dorm rooms” for the Terranauts.  Perhaps we can work with Winnebago to provide our transportation, and Mobil/Exxon or Shell to provide gas, in exchange for sponsorship recognition.  Perhaps Good Morning America might team with us to provide once-a-week coverage of our progress, along with live coverage from NASA TV – to allow the public insight on where the EarthShip is going and who we’ve encountered on the way. (BTW, I’m a HUGE GMA fan!!! Yay Chris, Diane, Robin, and Sam!)

A lean support team composed of camera crew (or hand-held vid-cams), exhibit technician, and social media expert will help the EarthShip crew of Terranauts keep up with their postings.  Perhaps we can fly in “Max Q,” the astronaut band to perform at some of stops along the way.  One trailer will house the NASA exhibit material, which will include outside and inside material — weather-specific.

One slot for the EarthShip crew might be reserved for contest winners to travel for one month at a time, learning about NASA and taking the information back to their communities.

So, what do you think?

Crazy, huh? Yeah, I know. I get that all the time. But, still….

:-D

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Filed under Earth, federal government, leadership, NASA, space

Don’t be Pug, the Biker Pooch

I met Pug, the Biker Pooch, yesterday morning at the motorcycle repair shop where my daughter’s death trap – I mean Bike – was getting worked on. Adorable little Pug. All decked out in his doggie goggles and head gear. He looked like a tiny Amelia Earhart. I fussed over him a bit, took his picture with my iPhone, then tweeted his likeness out to the Twitterverse.

But all the while, I kept thinking, “Am I witnessing Poochie abuse?”

I mean, really. Does little Pug have a choice? His owner, Nice Biker Guy, dresses him up, straps him on the back of his motorcycle and off they go. Does Pug, the Biker Pooch, get a choice? Does he like being strapped on the back of a motorcycle? Does he enjoy the outfit he’s wearing? Is he even safe?

At first I was thinking how sad for the little pup to submit to the indignity of doll clothes. Then I realized maybe the goggles really kept him safe. But hold on. His owner, Biker Guy, gets a real helmet, reinforced jacket, and heavy boots to protect him from flying rocks or, heaven forbid, a nasty spill. Will a little bit of head-mounted leather keep Little Biker Pooch from harm?

Nice Biker Guy told me Pug’s story and how he rescued the little pooch 12 years ago in the DMZ when Biker Guy served in the Army. Pug was a stray. He was scheduled to be “put down,” but Biker Guy asked for a chance with him. From that day on, their partnership flourished. Fast forward to today. Pug’s a pretty low-key kinda’ pup. But I have to wonder, is he just old? The little guy barely even moves. (Yes, he’s alive. He blinked at me a few times.)

So, here’s my question: Does Pug like the direction his life has taken, or has he given up the fight and accepted his fate as a teeny circus show animal? 

We’ll never know, now will we? But I started thinking about work. So many parallels.

Sadly, I’ve seen many a Biker Pooch at the office. You know what I’m talking about: employees who appear submissive and lifeless. Each day revolves around doing what they’re told – even if it means dressing up in leather and goggles and hopping on the back of the bike.  Ok, I’m being facetious…but sometimes it looks like that to me

Think about it. Some of your coworkers may seem to check reason at the door when they clock in. They may assume mandates given by a “superior” must be valid, whether or not they make sense. Time and again, I’ve had colleagues tell me our management must know what they’re doing – as if management has some magic formula to make wrong things right.

Now let’s look at that. Just because someone holds a position of authority, it doesn’t make him or her superior – in knowledge, experience, or even skill. A title on a business card can mean nothing more than words printed on paper. Why, oh why, do we condition our children to think that anyone with a title must be respected  – despite actions that prove otherwise? They grow up worshipping authority. Wanting it. Resenting when they don’t have it. Sorry, here I go on another tangent.

Quick story: I worked for a manager who blustered and brow-beat and strong-armed his way through any discussion. He would stake a claim (decision) and stick with it stubbornly, no matter the documented evidence that his claim might be an unwise course of action. At some point in the debate, he would switch his decision and announce that we misunderstood him because this NEW position had been his ONLY position all along. He blew smoke around the room to make others think they’d lost their minds — never admitting he’d changed his mind. I was amazed how easily my colleagues accepted blame, and bought the premise that they simply misinterpreted the manager’s position. One colleague gushed about how brilliant this manager was. His reason: everyone in the room appeared confused and clueless. I suggested perhaps the “brilliant manager” was spreading confusion to mask his own cluelessness. Ah, the heresy. 

My point: Just because management makes a decision, doesn’t mean the decision is right.

So what do you do when the decision doesn’t feel right? Ask questions. Nicely. Discretely. Respectfully. But, don’t just “follow” a decision because someone above you makes it. We all make mistakes – from the lowest to the highest levels. Checks and balances, the foundation of our entire federal system, play an important role in any organization…or family, for that matter. Listen to your gut!

If a decision doesn’t make sense to you, it’s probably because the decision doesn’t make sense. 

So let’s get back to Pug, Little Biker Pooch. He really doesn’t have a choice, now does he? He could bark and fuss and make a stink. But how do we know he didn’t do that in the beginning? How do we know Nice Biker Guy didn’t break down his resistance and force him into submission through the 12 years they’ve been together. How do we know Little Pug didn’t merely gave up trying? 

Moral to the story: Don’t submit to questionable decisions at work (or with family and friends) against your better judgment. Don’t assume others know more than you and, therefore, their decisions must be right.

Think! Question! Probe! Decide for yourself!

If, however, you like the goggles and leather head gear, by all means strap yourself on the back of the bike and enjoy the ride. If you don’t, take steps to STOP the MADness.

Remember: You have a choice, unlike little Pug.

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Filed under federal government, leadership, NASA

Want Change? Bring Your Ax!

“Do you not know, my son, with what LITTLE understanding the world is ruled?”

Pope Julius III

I spoke to a group of  University of Texas LBJ School graduates in Washington DC last night. The sky let loose like a water stampede the VERY moment I stepped to the lobby door at NASA Headquarters to catch a cab for my ride over 19th and Pennsylvania. Great. Nothing like showing up bedraggled (I love that word). Thanks guys for braving the weather to make it there!

For our discussion, I pulled together a list of the undercurrents that prevent progress in the federal government.  In my early years at NASA, I charged forward with starry eyes and idealistic plans, only to trip over unseen obstacles on my way to my grand scheme to:

Change the World for Good. 

I know, I know. Goody two shoes. Believe me, I’ve been called worse. ;)

In my idealism and enthusiasm, I made a good many mistakes. I failed to see all the unwritten rules that govern how work is done — the CULTURE of the organization. Often, people steeped in the organizational culture are blind to it. So was I, at first.

My biggest (and hardest) lesson over the years:

Change does NOT appeal to everyone.

Shocking, I know. But as hard as it was for me to conceive, many are QUITE comfortable with status quo…AND may have built their identities around the Here-and-Now.

Change = Unknown.

The unknown may appear dark and murky and unappealing to some. To others, the unknown is an intriguing, thrilling challenge.

Quick story: When my Mother came up to DC years ago, I suggested she hop on the Metro and explore what the City had to offer. Day after day I came home to find she hadn’t left the house. I couldn’t imagine all those missed opportunities, all the treasures left undiscovered — all within an easy 10 minute ride from the house. I mean, REALLY. WASHINGTON DC!!!!

When I pressed her, she made this comment:

“I don’t explore. YOU do.”

Wow. I’d never thought about it. I realized for the first time that I truly AM an explorer. I want to know what’s behind the unopened door. I look for new pathways, new approaches, new solutions. I want to know what I don’t know. My mother helped me understand why I was such a “pain in the backside” to my colleagues at work who dragged their feet with new projects or new approaches to old processes. They MUST have felt the same frustration with me my Mother did. They were perfectly content doing the same things the same ways as they always did before I entered the mix.

I began to reassess how I viewed those resistance to change. I needed a better understanding on how “the world is ruled” (Pope Julius IIII quote above). I offer a few “unspoken truths” I’ve gleaned about everyday behavior within change-resistant people and the organizations in which they thrive. 

Change-resistant Culture:

  1. Every new idea is an idea that didn’t work in the past.
  2. Don’t ask why. Do it because it’s always been done this way. 
  3. Activity IS the outcome.
  4. The answer is no, no matter the question.
  5. Hole-digging is easier than mountain-climbing. (Or, it’s easier to dig a hole than climb out of one.
  6. Ruts provide a narrow point of view. The deeper the rut…
  7. Comfort in process can mean discomfort with change.
  8. Bureau-train on autopilot. Conductor need not apply.

None of these are solutions. They simply give me a starting point to understand where we get stuck and how we might inch forward from here.

For example, look at #3: Activity=Outcome. I firmly believe this as the #1 reason the government resists telework/telecommuting initiatives. “Managing by Activity” means we measure success by how busy someone looks. We create “activity reports” and spend time filling them — which is “activity” in and of itself. We list the number of phone calls we make, or meetings we attend. Whew! Full day indeed! Yet, what did we accomplish? If managers measure performance by watching employees “be busy” rather than produce results, then how can a manager allow the employee to work outside his/her line of sight? “Managing by OUTCOME”…now that’s a scary thought to a culture steeped in activity-based success. We’re not good at giving employees a project with clear goals and deadline (OUTCOME), then setting them free to make the magic happen. If we were, we wouldn’t care where they got the job done — telework.

Here’s another example. Let’s look at #6: the dreaded rut (read habit). If we’re stuck in the rut and want out, what tools do we need? Maybe it’s as simple as a rope or a ladder. Perhaps we need blasting powder. What next? Do we fill in the rut to prevent backsliding or retreat? How do we fill the rut? Sand bags? Dump truck? Shovel? Now what? Where do we go from here? What new path do we want to forge? Do we need a compass? Do we face barbed wire? Forest? Desert? Sea? Whichever direction we take will require different tools. You get my drift. 

Unspoken “givens” in an organization influence how we get the job done, whether we know it or not.  

I haven’t even TOUCHED the topic of change in a toxic organization, which can represent a direct assault on the power structure. Those in power will resist change with all available resources to preserve even the smallest appearance of authority. But, alas, I’ll leave this for another blog-post.

Kudos to all of you out there COMMITTED to CHANGE in governmental process. Yay! You won’t be at all surprised to learn this:

 the Federal bureaucracy moves at glacier-speed.

Think about it. Have you EVER tried to stop a creeping ice mound? We have MUCH work to do, so GET OUT your PICKAX! But when you do, ALWAYS remember:

“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”

Hyman Rickover

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Filed under federal government, NASA, space