Peaks and Valleys


Usually I focus on the future direction of the agency, but this week I want to acknowledge the current environment and the challenges facing our workforce during this time of transition.  Earlier this month the NASA Administrator informed congress of the agency’s plan to inform the Constellation contractor community of the action required to prepare for termination costs to be incurred in the next fiscal year.  Yes, I know.  What does that mean in English?  The bottom line is that some of our friends in the aerospace community are being laid off.


Sure, I could sugar coat it with a string of buzz words.  The truth of the matter is that families are being impacted as the agency goes through a period of transformation.  Outstanding engineers are going to work wondering if a letter is waiting for them when they arrive at the office or when they get home.  No matter the industry you are in, having friends who are worried about their own future and how they will provide for their families makes for a tense environment.  Yet, to the credit of these outstanding employees they are giving 110% in the midst of all of the uncertainty.  Once again my hat goes off to the amazing dedicated team that gives so much to our national space program.


For those of us who will be able to carry on the dream of “boldly going where no one has gone before” let me offer the above  image from Pat Rawlings.  It is a perfect metaphor for the position that the agency currently finds itself and at the same time reminds us of the destination that the President asked us to reach in the mid 2035 time frame.  In the image above you have an astronaut descending down into the unknown valley.  You can’t see the bottom of the valley.  Instead you can see the peak in the distance that the other astronaut is scouting out.  You get the feeling that she is taking one final look at the destination that they are planning to reach.  Trying to hold that image in her mind as a reminder of where she needs to go once she descends with her colleague into the valley. 


NASA is about to enter that valley.  It is leaving a peak of human exploration with three large programs (Shuttle, International Space Station and Constellation) and is descending into a valley where a lot of uncertainty resides.  It reminds me of a scenario planning exercise that we had conducted about 3 years ago where the facilitator shared the story of IBM’s turnaround by Lou Gerstner.  He used the same metaphor but added one additional component to the analogy.  The challenge in most companies is that they want to go from Peak to Peak without descending into the valley.  They are looking for continual growth without ever having to go back down to regroup and prepare to climb an even higher peak.  Yet those that are willing to navigate the valley and keep their vision on the next peak (even when it might not be visible) will be able to reach higher ground.  Another great discussion on this concept is found in Spencer Johnson’s, Peak and Valleys. 


Now, back to Pat’s image.  There is something subtle that is implied in the image.  The key to their success lies in the leader clearly identifying the peak/destination that the team will follow.  It takes leadership to help the rest of the team see their destination during those times when it may not be obviously visible.  Without the leadership’s vision it is easy to get stuck and lost in the valley.  Luckily NASA is working hard to define that next peak before we enter the valley.  One such activity is the Human Exploration Framework Team (HEFT) that is working to clarify the path to the destinations that the President articulated on April 15th (human mission to an asteroid in the 2025 timeframe and to Mars in the 2035 timeframe).  The products due from the team this summer will give NASA a path through the uncertainty that looms ahead of us. 


Shortly after the Apollo missions, NASA was pushed to reinvent itself after we lost a portion of our workforce.  Coming out of that period we created the most incredible spacecrafts in the world, the Space Shuttle fleet.  We did it once and knowing my fellow colleagues we will do it again. I for one can’t wait to see the new heights that NASA will reach after it passes through this time of transition.


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office