Friday, March 25, 2005

Parallels between Hickam's observations on NASA's engineers and our weapons designers

There are interesting parallels between Hickam's observations on NASA's engineers and our weapons designers.
This is an op-ed piece from the Wall Street Journal.

March 22, 2005
Shuttle Fatigue

March 22, 2005; Page A14
The president has chosen a new NASA administrator, a young dynamic rocket scientist named Mike Griffin. I wish him well, but have a message. Most of my NASA engineer friends tell me they're worn out. The way they see it, the agency has become a grindstone where the dreams and careers of engineers are crushed into dust. This has got to change or NASA is heading toward extinction. My advice to Dr. Griffin is to take two steps: Put the Space Shuttle in the museum where it belongs and implement with urgency the design, construction and flight of a new crewed space vehicle before every good engineer you've got walks away in disgust.

I left NASA in 1998 to pursue a writing career. I'm glad I did, because I could no longer stand to work on the Space Shuttle: 24 years after it first flew, what was once a magnificent example of engineering has become an old and dangerous contraption. It has killed 14 people and will probably kill more if it continues to be launched. It has also wasted a generation of engineers trying to keep it flying on schedule and safe. [emphasis added] Frankly, that's just not possible and most NASA engineers in the trenches know it. Einstein reputedly defined insanity as repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. The Shuttle program is a prime example of this.

I hope Dr. Griffin recognizes that his job is to protect his engineers and give them something new and productive to build. [emphasis added] After bringing the Shuttle program to a rapid end (tomorrow would be good), he should implement the design and construction of the new Crew Exploration Vehicle that President Bush announced with fanfare last year. The CEV is a higher-tech version of the Apollo spacecraft that took us to the moon. I know NASA engineers would love to design, build, and fly such a vehicle. Most of them have never worked on a program that produced a spacecraft. Never! Can you imagine being an aerospace engineer and spending an entire career designing and designing again, but never being allowed to actually build and fly anything?

The CEV will need some nurturing. There are powerful forces within NASA which will protect the Shuttle with religious ferocity. If I were in charge, I'd do my best to convert if possible, or subvert if necessary, this Shuttle cult. It won't be easy: They're entrenched up and down the NASA organizational chart. Ultimately, Dr. Griffin may have to ask President Bush to step in and pull the plug on the Shuttle. I'll hold his coat.

As of right now, NASA says the CEV won't be ready to fly until 2014. That's nuts. Putting it off until then is like saying you're not going to build it at all. And if our tech edge is so dull we're not actually capable of building it, then let's just give up and buy the Chinese version. That's not a serious recommendation, by the way, but it is a wake-up call. Chinese engineers are doing cutting-edge work in space. In contrast, our engineers slave over the tired old Shuttle, or do paperwork exercises, thus proving Einstein was correct, not only about physics but insanity, too.

Mr. Hickam is the author, most recently, of "The Ambassador's Son" (St. Martin's, 2004).
URL for this article:,,SB111145768028885951,00.html

A similar situation is happening at National Institutes of Health. It seems to be the management style today. Walk off the street into a functioning and vital organization. Find a few off normal situations to complain about and use them as bludgeons to beat your staff into submission. If you cannot find real off normal situations, fabricate them. Use your findings to further weaken the organization. Call a new conference and soundly condemn the cowboys and buttheads that are responsible for destroying the organization. Be cheered by simpletons and Members of Congress for your insight.
The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell, page 8

"A very distinct pattern has emerged repeatedly when policies favored by the anointed turn out to fail. This pattern typically has four stages."

STAGE 1 “THE CRISIS”: Some situation exists, whose negative aspect the anointed propose to eliminate. Such a situation is routinely characterized as a “crisis,” even though all human situations have negative aspects, and even though evidence is seldom asked or given to show how the situation at hand is either uniquely bad or threatening to get worse. Sometimes the situation described as a “crisis” is in fact already been getting better for years. (Reference: The actual safety and security records of Los Alamos National Laboratory show a remarkable positive trend with the safety record moving into the “best of class” category. Laboratory leadership declares a "crisis" and incredulously attacks these official records instead of commending the Laboratory staff for their accomplishments.)

STAGE 2 “THE SOLUTION”: Policies to end the “crisis” are advocated by the anointed, who say that these policies will lead to beneficial result A. Critics say that these polices will lead to detrimental result Z. The anointed dismiss these latter claims as absurd and “simplistic,” if not dishonest. (Reference: Laboratory Director Nanos initiates a forced stand-down of all operations to “drain the swamp.” He denigrates Los Alamos staff who question this action as an assembly of arrogant cowboys and buttheads who just don’t get it.

STAGE 3. THE RESULTS: The policies are instituted and lead to detrimental result Z. (Reference: The stand-down in operations has cost the American taxpayer ~$850M although the total cost likely will be much higher than that. Highly qualified staff, which the Laboratory spends considerable resources to attract and train, have left and are in the process of leaving at a rate already running twice that of the previous year. National security programs have been delayed, transferred out of the Laboratory, or severely damaged. The full consequence of programmatic damage has not been determined. The trust-based relationships that are essential for any such determination are now nonexistent at Los Alamos.)

STAGE 4. THE RESPONSE: Those who attribute detrimental result Z to the policies instituted are dismissed as “simplistic” for ignoring the “complexities” involved, as “many factors” went into determining the outcome. The burden of proof is put on the critics to demonstrate to a certainty that these policies alone were the only possible cause of the worsening that occurred. No burden of proof whatever is put on those who had asserted that things would have been even worse, were it not for the wonderful programs that mitigated the inevitable damage from other factors. (Reference: Los Alamos has been severely crippled by its senior mismanagers; crucial national security programs have been held in abeyance for months; a hemorrhaging of the intellectual heart of the institution has begun; and enormous amounts of programmatic funds have been diverted to pay for process strategies that only replace effective ones that already had been in place (for example, ISM/ISSM). These outcomes are directly traceable to the failed leadership of Director Nanos. However, the anointed ones and their sycophants contend that the predictors of this condition Z just don't get it and should "suck it up and get with the program." The protesting predictors must prove their view in spite of the obvious facts that speak eloquently for themselves. The institution is falling down around us.
" Can you imagine being an aerospace engineer and spending an entire career designing and designing again, but never being allowed to actually build and fly anything?" It's been 13 years since we conducted an underground test, more that 30 years since we tested anything over 150kt. If you put a car in a garage that long how sure would you be that it would start.

Being grounded in reality is the only defense against the morons that live in the cracks. They come out in droves when the lights go out.

They should either resume testing or shut the Lab down. Otherwise the Nanos types will just keep coming.
To 12:10 --

Your comment makes it sound like nuke weapons work is all that was ever done at LANL. Many people do not know that, prior to the shutdown, nearly 25% of LANL's $2.2 billion budget was WFO (Work For Others -- non-DOE). All of it non-nuke science.

Naturally enough, much, if not most of that WFO money has fled LANL as a direct result of the shutdown.

So maybe they should shut the place down after all.
I didn't mean to imply nuclear weapons work was all that was done at LANL, but when you aren't honest about the core of your mission everything suffers. I'm well aware of how WFO will suffer from this atrocious management action.
In a current USA Today story, we read more about the situation at NASA. A recent GAO report has addressed the problem of attrition

"NASA is still having trouble recruiting and retaining skilled workers, the report said.

United Space Alliance — a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing formed to support the shuttle program — expects to have trouble convincing potential workers that they'll have job security. "In addition, they said that the lack of job security may be reflected in poor morale, inattention to details, errors, accidents, absences, and attrition," the report said."

Sound familiar?
It is quite sad to see how NASA has cratered, and how that has impacted the hero of Ocober Sky/Rocketboys (Homer Hickam).
Having met Linton Brooks, head of NNSA, and having spent approximately 2 hours across the table from him in meetings, I would like to offer up these observations:

1) He is quite skilled at managing the social interactions that occur around the meeting table. He can control the direction and volume of the conversation at his table quite skillfully.

2) He is not very intelligent.

As a result, I am not greatly surprised at the "cratering" of NNSA that has occurred under his (using the term somewhat loosely) leadership.

Granted, these opinions result from a sum total of two hours exposure to this Admiral cum Ambassador cum Head of NNSA, but the experience was real, unvarnished, and enlightening.
Will be interesting to see what happens at NASA.

Not to worry about LANL and the rest of the DOE complex though. An entertaining read is GAO Report GAO-05-164, "NNSA Contractor's Strategies to Recruit and Retain and Critically Skilled Workforce Are Generally Effective."
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