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ASK OCE — January 12, 2007 — Vol. 2, Issue 1


What’s the relationship between an organization’s performance and its culture? Dr. Howard McCurdy posed this question in his 1993 book Inside NASA, and in doing so he identified the core values and assumptions that became the basis for NASA’s technical culture.

Over the course of its nearly fifty year history, NASA has evolved from a fledgling agency cobbled together from several existing research programs to a mature organization with a culture that reflects the size and demands of its bureaucracy.

In its beginnings, NASA was the sum of its parts, or what Dr. McCurdy, professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, referred to as “a confederation of cultures.” The Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) brought a culture dominated by the German rocket scientists who came to the United States after World War II, most notably Dr. Werner von Braun. Existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) facilities such as Lewis Air Field and Langley Field had their own cultures, as did the other agencies that contributed personnel to the first generation of NASA. These were small organizations that were accustomed to operating with a good deal of autonomy and flexibility, and those characteristics served NASA extremely well as it broke barriers in its first generation. Almost from the outset, its engineers adopted a “frontier mentality,” as McCurdy called it, which prized new horizons over routine operations.

According to McCurdy, the culture that grew out of those entities sprang from a set of shared root assumptions about the importance of research and testing, in-house technical capability, hands-on experience, and exceptional people. The emphasis on research and testing was a cultural legacy from two of NASA’s predecessor organizations. “NACA engineers and ABMA rocketeers, the two largest groups to form NASA, placed a great deal of faith in the importance of testing,” McCurdy wrote.

The first generation of NASA employees also came with strong technical skills, and they sought to ensure that the Agency maintained its in-house technical capability and remained as knowledgeable its contractors. NASA technical employees joined the Agency with an understanding that they would have opportunities to do hands-on work, and a significant part of NASA’s spaceflight development work remained in-house in order to facilitate those on-the-job opportunities. NASA managers also recruited employees with excellent skills. “Exceptional people, the NASA leadership believed, would not join the space program unless it offered them a chance to actually work with the machinery,” McCurdy noted.

As NASA progressed toward meeting President Kennedy’s challenge of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s, the sheer complexity of the task demanded the adoption of a systems management approach that added new layers of bureaucracy to the Agency. Increases in the budget and size of the workforce — NASA expanded from 16,000 civil servants in 1960 to 36,000 in 1966—inevitably required additional levels of reporting and oversight. The technical cultures from the legacy organizations began to merge through the policies, processes, and procedures necessary to manage the Apollo development across NASA’s centers, and a new bureaucratic culture took shape. This period, which McCurdy characterized as “becoming conventional,” was a natural result of NASA’s organizational maturation process, and it restricted the flexibility that had characterized the earlier days of the Agency.

As the organization aged, it became more conservative and risk averse. This was due in large part to the nature of the burgeoning bureaucracy. “Officials became more concerned with the survival of the organization. They adopted management schemes that sacrificed institutional flexibility in order to ensure institutional survival,” McCurdy wrote. The increased public visibility of manned space flight also changed NASA’s risk posture. The Apollo 1 fire, which resulted in the deaths of three astronauts on the launch pad, “marked a turning point in NASA’s perception of the tolerance for risk and errors,” according to McCurdy.

Tighter budgets also affected NASA’s culture. With the Vietnam War and Great Society programs both placing heavy demands on the federal budget, NASA entered a period of shrinking resources well before Apollo 11 reached the moon. Layoffs followed, which “had a devastating effect on Agency morale.”

After reaching the moon, the Agency lacked the focal point that had driven it relentlessly toward one objective for the better part of a decade. NASA had reached the frontier, and it needed a new one to sustain its drive. Missions such as Viking and Voyager continued to expand the boundaries of spaceflight, but they could not, by virtue of their size or scope, inspire the same sense of an Agency-wide mission that Apollo did.

As a result of the shrinking workforce and the loss of an overarching mission, the Agency’s technical culture began to erode. NASA began to rely increasingly on contractors to do work that had once been conducted within the agency. The Agency also experienced a seven-year gap between the end of Apollo and the first flight of the Space

Shuttle during which NASA did not put humans into space. This lowered the Agency’s public profile and placed additional strain on the workforce. The Shuttle, the next major development in manned space flight, also shifted the Agency’s focus to operations. Regular flights into low-Earth orbit did not require or suit a frontier mentality.

McCurdy concluded that three factors were critical to the loss of NASA’s original culture. “The environment supporting the early space program changed. The government as a whole grew bureaucratic. And NASA aged.” He added, “The inevitable transformation of NASA shows how difficult the maintenance of a government culture supporting high-performance standards can be.”


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