Rethink: Rings Around Saturn

Have I ever told you why I drive a Saturn? You can blame it on NASA.

In 1990, NASA Headquarters brought me up on assignment from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to work on a new team — the first Office of Exploration. We were formed following the 90-day Moon/Mars Study requested by President H.W. Bush.

My task: design an evolving organizational structure to adapt quickly to change over a 30-year program of unknowns.

In carrying out this assignment, I looked for models of success. I researched bureaucratic organizations that spun off creative teams– to break free from entrenched culture. General Motors’ Saturn company offered wonderful parallels for NASA.

Their motto: Rethink!

The more I learned about the spanking new Saturn company, the more I fell in love with it. I couldn’t wait for my little Chevy Nova to croak, so I could buy my first Saturn. Once I became a proud Saturn owner, I entered the tight family circle — I slipped inside the rings around Saturn. I attended cook-outs at the dealership and new owner workshops to learn how the engine worked. I bought Saturn mugs and stuffed animals. The Saturn guys sent me birthday cards and notified me of company news. They even hosted a yearly get-together for all Saturn owners at their home plant in Tennessee.

I adored the Saturn culture — open, friendly, transparent.

Saturn success offered hope of a similar culture change at NASA for spin-off organizations. Sadly, their experiment in open environment failed to reap profit for GM. GM is shutting down the Saturn line.

The rings around Saturn collapsed under the weight of unmet corporate expectations. (Or perhaps from the weight of years of corporate culture crushing down.)

Saturn of Fairfax Dealership

Saturn Of Fairfax

As I sat in the Saturn dealership yesterday with other Saturn owners, we lamented over the death of our dream — a car company that offered affordable style and trustworthy employees. But a funny thing happened, we had a lovely morning talking about space.

We started talking about On-Star, which somehow led to satellites, which led to the retirement of the Space Shuttle, Russian Soyuz and the transportation gap, President Obama and new directions for space, opportunities for commercial space, SpaceShipTwo venture, Chinese and new space-faring nations, radiation effects on humans on Space Station, and much much more.

One of my fellow-Saturn owners went to high school with former Astronaut Pierre Thuot. Thanks to my iPhone, I could look him up and share what missions Pierre flew on.  Another fellow-Saturn owner shared MIT advances and how they might be applied to space travel. When his car was ready, he told me he’d rather stay and chat.

Upon retrospect, I find the cycle fascinating:

  1. NASA introduced me to my love-affair with Saturn; and
  2. I’m reminded of my love for NASA — spending four hours in a dreary Saturn dealership talking about space.

Two orbits collide on a cold Saturday morning. What are the odds? Though I’m sad Saturn will no longer be around, I’m glad their grand experiment taught us lessons on culture.

Saturn company not only built a great car, they built a communityeven though the business case failed to deliver profit.

Let’s hope NASA can learn lessons from Saturn about transparent culture and community-building. It’s not the vehicle itself (pick your spaceship), it’s all about creating a family circle and rethinking status quo.

Rethink Space? Hmmm. I like it!

Oh, and Santa, don’t forget to put the Saturn Sky in my stocking.

Saturn's Sky

Saturn's Sky sportscar


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

2 responses to “Rethink: Rings Around Saturn

  1. Very interesting analogy and connection between the two. Saturn was GM’s answer to Toyota and Honda and failed from other reasons (such as reliability of the parent company).
    Hopefully any new thinking at NASA won’t get squashed by current public image of NASA.

  2. Interestingly enough, I had an opportunity to work with some designers from Satern in 2001 as an intern at GM’s design center in Warren, MI. It was an incredible experience and I was really impressed with what they had in the pipeline back then. Of all the GM brands, Satern was known as being the creative ones. As you said, let’s hope NASA can learn lessons from Saturn. 🙂

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