NASA’s strategic direction? not one way…

Last week I reported ex-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s current views on NASA’s strategic direction. Today, as promised, I’ll tell you about what ex-NASA Administrator Bob Frosch has to say on the subject.

The National Research Council’s Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction, assembled by the NRC’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences at NASA’s request (see my July 18 blog post), has invited comments from all living ex-NASA administrators (plus current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver)* on “whether [the agency’s] strategic direction…as defined by the 2011 NASA strategic plan, remains viable and whether the agency’s activities and organization efficiently and effectively support that direction in light of the potential for constrained budgets for the foreseeable future.”

Griffin, President George W. Bush’s second appointed head of NASA (2005-2009), and Bob Frosch, President Jimmy Carter’s appointee to the position (1977-1981), had an hour apiece with the committee at its July 26 meeting in Washington, D.C. I was there to observe. Frosch was there to listen to Griffin. Griffin left the meeting before Frosch spoke. Their views could not have been more divergent.

Introducing himself to the committee as “your friendly neighborhood cynic, left over from the Neolithic,” Frosch said that upon reading the committee’s statement of task, he’d concluded that it had been “delivered a load of whiffledust and sent on a snipe hunt.” When he ran NASA, he said, his planning guidance was the 1958 NASA Act, and “there was no single direction” in it. The challenge of developing a good NASA strategic plan is a matter of figuring out how to achieve a balance among the functions assigned to NASA in the Act.

NASA’s long had a case of “nostalgie de la Sputnik” – in its post-Cold War years the agency has been waiting for somebody to “threaten” the United States so it can respond by doing something big that will show “the people” how valuable the space agency is. It is difficult to see how NASA can contribute to advancing “national priorities,” as these priorities are never clear and have “a habit of leading political lives of two, four, or six years, while the lifetimes of NASA priorities start at 10 years or more, he observed.

How can NASA “lead” in space exploration? “You lead by leading,” Frosch said, by sustaining international cooperation, by serving as “the chair and not the dictator.” Frosch said he’s long favored President Eisenhower’s approach to strategic planning: “plans are nothing, planning is everything…. The virtue of planning is that you’ve thought about a lot of possibilities, so you’re continually prepared” to produce a brand-new plan that is responsive to the current environment.

Last week’s meeting marked the NRC committee’s last planned public session. The committee is aiming to complete its report by November and will continue its work in closed session from now until then.

*All save Dan Goldin (1992-2001) have addressed the committee. Though thus far he has made good on his promise upon leaving NASA to forego commenting on his predecessors or successors at the agency, Goldin reportedly has not turned down or accepted the committee’s invitation.

Ex-NASA boss defends GW Bush “vision” (again…)

Two ex-NASA administrators of wildly diverging views addressed the National Research Council’s Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction this week, much to my amusement. It was the sort of political theater that delights us hard-core policy wonks….

The NRC’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences assembled this committee at NASA’s request (see my July 18 blog post) “to assess whether [the agency’s] strategic direction…as defined by the 2011 NASA strategic plan, remains viable and whether the agency’s activities and organization efficiently and effectively support that direction in light of the potential for constrained budgets for the foreseeable future.” (A detailed description of the committee’s task is available here.)

Mike Griffin, President George W. Bush’s second appointed head of NASA (2005-2009), and Bob Frosch, President Jimmy Carter’s appointee to the position (1977-1981), had an hour apiece with the committee at its July 26 meeting in Washington, D.C. I was there to observe. Frosch was there to listen to Griffin. Griffin left the meeting before Frosch spoke – a pity, as I would love to have seen a dialogue between the two…

In today’s post, I’ll recap Griffin’s remarks. Next week, I’ll report on what Frosch said. Then you, dear readers, can decide who makes more sense.

Griffin told the committee that he’s grown “tired” of pronouncements that the United States is “the world’s leader in space.”* “We barely rank number 3…. Our vision today is mostly talk,” he said, insisting that the Constellation program put in place in response to President Bush’s so-called “Vision for Space Exploration” was, and still is, a good plan and affordable to execute. He asserted that Bush’s strategy was “the right strategy, was endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and did not a massive increase in the NASA budget.”

(My recollection is that after President Bush called for returning people to the Moon and sending them on to Mars, neither the White House nor Congress adequately funded the effort required to enable this “vision” to materialize. The Constellation program appeared to be over budget and behind schedule from Day One until it was cancelled by the Obama administration, which apparently came to the realization that it was unaffordable. As Griffin himself pointed out, the Review of Human Space Flight Plans Committee commissioned by President Obama concluded that NASA would need a budget boost of at least $3 billion a year to execute Bush’s “vision.” Griffin might not call that massive, but apparently others do.)

NASA’s “science program is out of bounds” in terms of how much of the agency’s budget it takes up, Griffin said. The core purpose of NASA is human space flight, and “if you want to have a prepossessing human space flight program,” NASA needs to spend less on science and more on human exploration.

As a committee member noted, the 1958 NASA Act dictates an array of purposes, objectives, and functions for the space agency, including but by no means limited to human exploration. But no matter to Mike…

When asked what he thought of the Obama administration’s call for a human mission to an asteroid rather than a return to the Moon, Griffin said, “I think it’s stupid.” When asked how NASA might be able to come up with a do-able long-term plan for exploration within current funding constraints (that is, flat funding for the foreseeable future), Griffin said assuming NASA’s budget will continue to be constrained “is a poor way to think.” He criticized NASA’s current capabilities-driven approach to human exploration, insisting that it has to be mission-driven (i.e. Moon-Mars). He hinted that human exploration might be conducted more efficiently and thus affordably if not for bureaucracy. “Efficiency in government is highly undemocratic…it is authoritarian,” and the U.S. government procurement system is designed for fairness, not efficiency.

Committee chair Al Carnesale asked Griffin how the space program might be able to transcend the problem of politics driving NASA strategy. Begging the question, Griffin said NASA should not develop policy but implement it (which is what, as far as I can tell, NASA does.)

Griffin declared that the primary value of the U.S. civil space program “is its contribution to our national security.” The space program is “a strategic national asset.” The United States contains “5 percent of the world’s people and controls 25 percent of its wealth…and we like it that way” he said. Arguing for a more aggressive human exploration program, he said the United States is following in the footsteps of the ancient Roman empire and the British empire by carrying on with “expanding and exploiting” into space.

The committee thanked him for his “candor.”

*Earlier this month the President’s Science Advisor John Holdren publicly declared that the U.S. is and will remain “the” world leader in space. I will note that the NASA Act calls for the agency to establish the United States as “a” leader in space exploration. Griffin reportedly is advising the Romney campaign.

Fly on, Sally Ride… (1951-2012)


My most vivid and enduring memories are of intensely emotional experiences. Among these memories is my recollection of the first time I saw Sally Ride in person.

It was at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where she appeared to speak with the media after her flight on the 1983 Space Shuttle mission STS-7. I was covering the event as editor of Space Business News. I recall that her husband and fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was on stage with her. I can’t recall whether the rest of the crew of STS-7 was there as well. The spotlight was on her….

What I do remember clearly is that, in the course of responding to questions about her status as the first U.S. female astronaut to fly in space, she said something to the effect that she owed a debt to the women’s movement for helping her to be where she was that day.

I surprised myself by tearing up over that remark, and I remember having a hard time calming myself down. (Journalists aren’t supposed to get emotional about their stories, for pete’s sake….)

I was born just 25 days before Sally Ride. We grew up in very different circumstances, though in the same era of 1960s second-wave feminism. Most young women coming of age at that time and choosing to travel down non-traditional pathways – that is, anything other than marriage, motherhood, teaching, or nursing – would have to deal with social barriers to their progress along the way. Whatever barriers Ride may have encountered, she apparently ignored them, and thank goodness for that.

Yet Ride appeared to understand that the women’s movement had provided an invisible hand to help push her along her path. This is what made me cry, and it’s what makes me remember that moment today.

I’ve been an “out” feminist since I learned what feminism was, back in the ‘60s. I knew that while we women had to make the best of our own skills and strengths, we also had to stick together and help each other out along the way. My network of female colleagues and friends in the aerospace community has been, and still is, invaluable to me as a source of guidance, encouragement, affirmation, and support.

I did not have the privilege of knowing Sally Ride. I had a brief conversation with her once, at some Washington networking event. I hope I remembered to tell her how much I admired her. Though we had no personal connection, I’d like to remember her as an honorary member of my invaluable women’s support network.

Communicating beyond the academy

This morning I’ve been poking around the web site of the Public Philosophy Network, and I’ve come across a nifty little science-communication guide that I’d like to recommend to any scientist interested in communicating “beyond the academy.”

“Communicating Geographical Research Beyond the Academy: A Guide for Researchers,” is a product of the U.K.’s Royal Geographical Society. The guidance offered therein is by no means particular to geography and relevant to any natural or social scientific discipline. The guide addresses communicating with policy makers, business leaders, teachers, and students, as well as engaging “the public” in research.

A good list of “do”s and “don’t”s for communicating beyond the academy is offered (p. 5):

“Do be clear about your motives and the messages you want to convey.

Do research the audiences you are trying to engage; understand what they seek, and plan when and how best to reach them.

Do include rather than exclude through your style and language; avoid jargon, be concise and show enthusiasm.

Do learn from others and avoid reinventing wheels; seek partnerships and work collaboratively with experienced organizations.

Don’t expect it to be easy, especially if you seek measurable outcomes and impacts.

Don’t choose a medium you are not comfortable with.

Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes and ask advice of others.”

As to talking with the press (p. 19), “do”s and “don’t”s are brief:

“Do talk to the press.

Don’t talk about things you have not studied.

Above all, don’t keep quiet.”

I heartily second all of the above!

A meaningful vision for NASA: mission impossible?

Last month I had the opportunity to talk with a committee of distinguished representatives of the aerospace community about NASA’s strategic planning process and the agency’s strategic direction. My take on the topics was this: both are muddy. Politics – from the national to the organizational to the individual – clouds the process and dictates the direction. Thus, there may be no way to get out of the mud.

The National Research Council’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (DEPS), at the request of NASA’s inspector general (prompted by a legislative directive), organized this “Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction” to consider goals set for the agency in the1958 NASA Act (as amended) and recent authorizing laws, “assess the relevance of NASA’s strategic direction and goals to achieving national priorities, “assess the viability of NASA’s strategic direction and goals in the context of current budget expectations and stated programmatic priorities for the agency, and “recommend how NASA could establish and effectively communicate a common, unifying vision for NASA’s strategic direction that encompasses NASA’s varied missions.” (The committee’s full statement of task and the agenda for its meeting this week are available online here.)

Every time I read these marching orders, I start hearing the theme song to “Mission Impossible”….

The committee invited me to address its June 25 meeting in Washington, asking me to focus especially on “how NASA could establish and effectively communicate a common, unifying vision….” Here’s what I said, in brief (my Powerpoint slides for this presentation are posted here).

To establish a common unifying vision and to effectively communicate that vision are two different tasks. NASA “vision” statements are necessarily bland and nebulous, “mom-and-apple-pie” statements, formulated by committees.* NASA “visions” must support national space policy — which changes every four to eight years as political leadership changes. Policies and “visions” are politically motivated and value-laden (that is, ideological). Visions beget strategic plans, and thus these plans are politically motivated and value-laden as well. To develop a common, unifying “vision” for NASA’s strategic direction is a task that NASA may not be able to perform.

Until and unless NASA can consult with citizens about space exploration goals and objectives that are important to them and incorporate public input into its strategic planning process, balance political and public interests, acknowledge and temper internal cultural biases and subcultural conflicts, and jettison its branding-and-marketing strategy in favor of a more effective long-term communication strategy, then it will be difficult for NASA to develop a common, unifying vision.

What NASA needs is a vision for the U.S. future in space that is meaningful to citizens, not just to aerospace insiders, and a meaningful vision (and strategic direction) must acknowledge that the U.S. can’t always be “the leader” in all things aeronautics and space. In fact, the NASA Act directs NASA to be “a leader” – what a difference a preposition makes….

In theory, it is possible for NASA to develop and deploy an effective communication strategy. In practice, it may not be possible to accomplish this goal given that NASA’s “vision” changes shape every 4-8 years and at the same time is tightly linked to the contested ideologies of American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and libertarianism.

* Committee co-chair Albert Carnesale pointed out to a NASA official addressing the June 25 meeting that the agency’s current “vision statement” does not mention either “aeronautics” or “space.” (Talk about nebulous….)

The saga of arsenic-life: the next exciting episode…


More than a year and a half after their first go-round, Rosie Redfield and skeptical colleagues continue to fling their gauntlets at the feet of Felisa Wolfe-Simon. It’s Chapter Umpty Ump in the Tale of the Dueling Microbiologists, also known as the Saga of Arsenic Life (Or Not).

In the unlikely case that you have forgotten, on December 2, 2010, the journal Science published a paper by Wolfe-Simon and a dozen collaborators claiming the discovery of  “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus.” This paper generated, first, a ton of media coverage, and second, a heated online critique, initiated by biologist-blogger Rosie Redfield.

This month, the journal Science (to be precise, its online Science Express) publishes two papers refuting the claims made by Wolfe-Simon et al:

* M.L. Reaves et al,  “Absence of detectable arsenate in DNA from arsenate-grown GFAJ-1 cells” (Redfield is a coauthor);

* T.J. Erb et al, “GFAJ-1 is an arsenate-resistant, phosphate-dependent organism.”

These papers, released to the mass media on July 8, have already generated another flurry of press reports. (I haven’t explored the blogosphere response as yet – I’m sure there is one….)

I’ve been piecing together The Saga of Arsenic Life (or Not) from my social-studies-of-science perspective.  Though I’ve not yet published my paper, I’m posting it hereon my blog site for your information. Once I revise it to accommodate this latest round of dialogue about the case, I’ll post an updated version here.

Meanwhile, I’ve talked with colleagues who are also exploring this case: Phil Mirowski at the University of Notre Dame, who’s exploring this story as a case of “trial by Twitter,” and Dominique Brossard and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who are studying the science communication in this case.

On January 20, 2012, the journal Nature reported, under the headline “Study challenges existence of arsenic-based life,” that Redfield and colleagues’ effort to replicate Wolfe-Simon’s experiment did not yield the same results. That is, they did not find that the microbe GFAJ-1, could incorporate arsenic in the place of phosphorus.

While the actual science involved in this story is beyond my ability to fully comprehend, I’m following the story as an interesting study of scientific rhetoric. (Full disclosure: I’ve met Wolfe-Simon, I’ve never met Redfield. Here I’m analyzing their texts.)

On December 4, 2010, Redfield blogged about the Science paper: “Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information…. I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda…. NASA’s shameful analysis of the alleged bacteria in the Mars meteorite made me very suspicious of their microbiology, an attitude that’s only strengthened by my reading of this paper…it doesn’t present ANY convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule).”

Wolfe-Simon, and NASA, responded to requests for comment on Redfield’s and other scientists’ criticisms by declaring the blogosphere an inappropriate forum for scientific peer review and declining to respond in that forum. Not only was their declaration to no avail, as the public onslaught continued, but also it provoked further criticism for dismissing bloggers as legitimate commentators.

On December 24, 2010, Science published an interview with Wolfe-Simon addressing the controversy about the paper, including this Q&A:

Q: After Saturday [4 December], when [Rosie] Redfield’s blog came out, at least some journalists took a look at the paper again and wanted to talk to you. If my information is correct, that’s when you and NASA declined to talk to reporters anymore about this. Is that right?

F.W.-S.: There are two issues. One is that, well, we wanted to be able to have that discourse in the scientific community, as a record. That’s the record, the literature record that we go back to—or has been up until now. So that was the one issue, and the other issue was the rapidness. We spent a lot of time really crafting our paper and crafting the SOM [supplemental online material] and crafting all the data, in terms of trying to show it as clearly as we thought. We wanted to give voice to that, in responses to these queries and some of the questions and issues brought up in the press, and we didn’t want to respond to it in a way that we thought would not give us the opportunity to think as deeply as we might need to. I was under a lot of pressure, and I’ll be honest, I was exhausted. I would really be lying if I told you that the barrage of criticism didn’t hurt. It did. I know my colleagues in the community aren’t thrilled or happy about this delay, but, again, I’m really doing my best.

Q: Are you going to start taking media calls again, or are you going to lay low for a while?

F.W.-S.: In talking to my co-authors, we want to get to work. We’re scientists, and it’s hard if all your time is taken up talking. I’m happy to explain the results, but there’s one thing, I think, to explain the results, and there’s another thing to be under what feels like an attack; it’s hard to do that.

Q: It sounds like what you want to do is not really spend much time with the media right now.

F.W.-S.: What we would want to iterate is that we’re thrilled that the public is talking about science. I think the media is an important part of the process. We absolutely don’t want to come off as evasive. We wanted the time to think. I think the physical volume at which questions and comments were coming in, I don’t know how others would respond. I mean, it was so much and so quick. In fact, during the press conference, I had a couple hundred, at least, e-mails coming in. I’m still on stage. I didn’t have my PDA with me. When I checked my e-mail later, they’re demanding, “Answer all my questions right now.” It’s really hard.

Redfield, in writing, can be combative. Wolfe-Simon, in writing, can be patronizing. Such stances are by no means unheard of in the history of science. Whether they are productive stances is another matter.