Missing Pieces: What NASA’s Gen Y Keeps Missing
I invite you to visit this web site, and read where Nick Skytland, a Gen-Y civil servant at Johnson Space Center (JSC), posted a presentation from the PM Challenge conference entitled “Participatory Exploration: The Role of the User Contribution System.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Okay, now that you’ve read that, I’ll make some obligatory grumpy comments. These are being written in the spirit of constructive criticism, not "Siddown, kid, and wait your turn!" I'm looking at specifics in the presentations and so am asking/commenting about specifics.
I’ve met Nick once or twice at space-related events, and he’s a friend in Facebook. I'm not sure he reads this blog, but I might direct him to it just to provide him with food for thought for his next presentation. Nick is one of many under-30 contributors at the agency who’s trying to get NASA to think more like a dot-com (e.g. Google) and less like a command-and-control military organization. I wish him and his compadres well. Gosh knows all government agencies could think more quickly on their feet. However, being a Gen-Xer who’s spent most of my career in large, command-and-control organizations, I suspect that Nick has bigger challenges ahead than he realizes.
One of the gripes I’ve had about these types of presentations is that they are very brain-heavy. Here’s what I mean: despite the fact that, until the recent recession, America has continued to break records in the amount of manufactured stuff we export, media pundits and younger folks focused remain captivated by the "service economy" and the “information age."
Now admittedly a lot of our mass-produced products can be assembled, packaged, or shipped robotically, and that trend will no doubt continue. However, one of the largest contributors to America’s exports has been The Boeing Company, which depends on a large, skilled workforce capable of bending metal, installing wiring, turning wrenches, welding structures, and all the rest. All of this is still too complex for robots and likely will be for some time to come. These activities involve people doing physical labor, not just sitting in front of a laptop at Starbucks, sipping lattés. I don’t know what the specific percentages are, but I think I’m safe in assuming that not all of the people producing or building stuff—from farm goods to airplanes and spacecraft—went to college. Skytland is “privileging” (a favorite phrase of one of my grad school profs) intellect and symbol manipulation over physical labor. This is a mistake because not everyone can contribute this way, nor do they necessarily want to. Any future educational system—and any future space program—must find ways for individuals with mental and physical skill sets to contribute, because we will need both educated minds and skilled hands if we want to get to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Another issue I have with these Gen Y presentations—and I apologize now if Nick covered this, all I have to go by are the PPT slides—is how they emphasize collaborative technological tools but do not specify how these tools will enable people to make fundamentally better contributions than they might make through, say, face-to-face meetings, phone calls, or memos. I would also be interested to see what specific engineering or scientific contributions have been made in the aerospace industry using Skytland’s proposed new work environment. One example I can think of off the top of my head is the "virtual collaboration" Boeing has been doing to design and build the 787 Dreamliner at multiple locations around the globe. However, that plane is now likely to start deliveries more than a year late. Was that the result of--or despite--worldwide, international collaboration? That question should be answered.
Next on my nitpicking list: the global marketplace. It is one thing to have global “participation” in a robotic exploration mission (the standard example I’ve heard is allowing people to vote on “where to plant the flag”). It is another to have people from other countries reviewing and building the rockets--see the 787 example above. Since the dawn of the space age, rockets have been a critical national and strategic technology because of their ability to carry weapons. As noted above, if America has had one distinctive competitive advantage over the past 50 years, it has been in aerospace technology. This includes everything from materials to aerodynamic shapes or computer codes for analyzing flight paths to the guidance systems that allow a rocket to travel 25,000 miles per hour and reach a target millions of miles away with a margin of error measured in inches. These are all technologies that require United States citizens to produce them—at least if the United States wants to remain a spacefaring nation. There are some jobs that NASA and its primary contractors simply will not and cannot outsource to other countries because it’s the law.
We have a truly unique and challenging future ahead of us. I look forward to future contributions by Nick and others like him. I’d just like a little more organizational, cultural, and operational realism brought into the discussion.