Can we Talk?

This week I had 4 different thoughts that I wanted to discuss and couldn’t decide which one to choose, but then realized that they were actually all connected.  The connection actually lies in the title of a movie that my family experienced early in the week.  The Human Experience” is the “story of a band of brothers who travel the world in search of the answers to the burning questions: “Who am I” Who is Man: Why do we search for meaning?”  In their travels they live with the homeless in New York City, visit the lost children of Peru and the lepers in Ghana, Africa.  Watching it our family couldn’t help but be amazed by the incredible human spirit that thrives even in the toughest of situations.  Over and over again the message was reiterated how the full spectrum of human experiences is what unites us and lifts us up.  Stories of strength and hope in the most adverse conditions remind us of the depth of the human spirit.

Then a friend of mine shared with me Neil deGrasse Tyson’s, “What NASA means to America’s Future” speech at the University of Buffalo.  During his speech Dr. Tyson, stated that “NASA is a force of nature like no other” and that “NASA can dream about tomorrow” and we “need someone to keep the flame going.”  I like that. A force of nature that carries dreams forward.  It is not just the dream of those that work in the agency but it carries the unfettered dreams of a nation and the world. 


And as President Obama stated at his speech at the Kennedy Space Center, “Now, little more than 40 years ago, astronauts descended the nine-rung ladder of the lunar module called Eagle, … It wasn’t just the greatest achievement in NASA’s history — it was one of the greatest achievements in human history. And the question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something or the end of something. I choose to believe it was only the beginning.”  It doesn’t matter which camp you are on whether NASA should provide access to Low Earth Orbit or transition that to the commercial providers because at the end of the day I believe we all agree that NASA has always been and will always be here for the benefit of all humanity.  So I believe the focus of our conversations should move from how do we get to space to how do we add to the human experience?  What can we do to benefit all of humanity?


Or better yet, why not tackle the challenge posed by the former Director of DARPA, Dr. Tony Tether, at the recent JSC Innovation 2010 event.  (A great event that I will share in my next blog.)  After his presentation he was asked what he thinks should be the mission or rallying cry to focus NASA’s innovation?  His answer was priceless and so to paraphrase his response, 


“When NASA first went to the moon, we all wanted to go.  Forty years later we still ALL want to go.  NASA has forgotten that we all want to go.  If it can remember that fact, then there is nothing that can stop it from achieving the impossible.”  It is the human experience … we all want to go.  It is the pushing forward against impossible odds that lifts the human condition.  So how do we lift the human experience beyond the boundaries of this Earth AND lift the human condition back on Earth?  That is a “noble purpose” worth talking about.


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office


Edutainment- Another way to inspire

I am at the Bayou Regional FIRST robotics competition and am amazed at the NBA atmosphere of the event.  Filled with everything from the bleacher stomping “We will Rock you” to the sound system that gives you a second heart beat and team mascots cheering on the adrenaline filled crowds.  A bunch of wanna be engineers along with scores of families and friends that are excited by the 6 robots battling out to score the most points by kicking a soccer ball into a goal.  Today these future engineers and scientists are the rock stars of the Alario Center in New Orleans.  My hats off to the Stennis Space Center for their support of an outstanding event and inspiring our next generation.


There is much talk about the lack of a destination and how we need one to inspire our future generations but I think there is much to be said about making science, technology, engineering and math fun. Watching this crowd I think more will be inspired by their achievement in making a robot that will go to the national competition than a Mars mission by the end of this decade.  Yes there is a place for a destination but that is not the only way we can inspire.  We should not underestimate the power of mixing education with entertainment to attract our future workforce.  I know some will say that I’ve gone to the “dark side” but then again how many of us were attracted to the world of engineering because of the creations of Lucas and Roddenberry?


Edutainment cannot only inspire but it can also educate the world about the scientific and technical advancements we are making. Even though many are inspired by the amazing images from our technical achievements like the images from Hubble, engineers are not the best ones to share our discoveries and educate the public of our discoveries.  Just ask my family.  My thespian daughter can weave a tale that will keep us engaged throughout dinner while my tales may last through desert.  I like what Will Pomerantz , Manager of Google Lunar X-Prize, recently shared in his blog about the power of mixing the entertainment industry with our engineering discoveries, “Scientists and Engineers have fundamentally important and exciting things to tell the world about–but are ill suited to do the telling. By working together with entertainers, they hope to play to each group’s strengths, with the end result of conveying the key messages to an audience in an understandable way. To that end, the National Academy of Sciences is organizing events like last night’s salon, and even offering free scientific consultation to film makers and other entertainers who want to improve the scientific accuracy of their products.”


I believe it will take artists, entertainers, writers and the left brain people of the world to create the stories that will inspire and educate our nation.  It is images like the one at the right, from an artist that I continually get my inspiration from, Pat Rawlings, that will inspire a future entrepreneur to create the first Ivy league campus on the moon or for us Texans, a Texas A&M satellite campus near Tranquility base.  What engineer wouldn’t want to be part of this cathedral building project? 


What if we not only used robotics but video games as well? What are the other possibilities to inspire if we mixed NASA’s discoveries with the world of entertainment?   


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

My inspiration for getting into strategy development came from a Heinlein novel that a friend of mine recommended eight years ago. The story takes place on a thriving lunar society in the year 2076. What was so fascinating about the novel was not the technology but how humanity will change as it inhabits the stars. It is a great story and I would highly recommend! I mention this novel primarily because of the power it had to focus my career and set me on a new path.

If we could use a similar media to inspire tomorrow’s explorers, what would it look like?  Maybe a graphic novel?  Graphic novels have been exponentially growing in popularity with a diverse segment of the population. Not only have they grown to take up a whole row in any Barnes and Noble book store, but they are now the source of a growing number of motion pictures. It is a great graphical way to tell a story and engages a whole new generation.

What if we used a graphic novel format to tell the story of the future Human Exploration missions? Could it be used to inspire a whole new generation or at least inform them of the fact that we are going to the moon and onto Mars? 

With that as a background, I would like to offer you the opportunity to shape the path of future explorers.  There is some momentum building on this idea of a graphic novel for space and here is your chance to help steer the storyline for novel. Let me know what you think about the below nine ideas and/or what additional story lines you would recommend.

1. Journey/tale showing various challenges and achievements of three children that all vow to go to the Moon after an inspirational event. They don’t all succeed and life changing events push them to grow in unexpected directions. They all follow different story arcs that occasionally intersect and they are eventually caught up in a global emergency that that takes them to the Moon and beyond.
2. Rescue story demonstrating the ingenuity and spirit of a small lunar outpost crew after the unexpected impact of an asteroid. Using materials salvaged from the outpost they journey to a lava tube below the lunar surface where they set up a temporary base until a vehicle can arrive from Earth.
3. Retrospective of a wealthy entrepreneur that made a fortune in commercial space. From a humble beginning in the rural Midwest, the hero works with NASA as it begins to explore the Moon, asteroids and eventually Mars.
4. Global “Gold Rush” to the Moon after a fusion energy breakthrough make lunar helium 3 very valuable. In competition with “official” missions sponsored by countries are some very shady enterprises that will do whatever it takes to get there first.
5. Explorers on the Moon find evidence of previous visitors. The relics on the Moon point to an ancient base in Antarctica.
6. Inadvertent stowaway on a lunar resupply ship. Child’s experiences on lunar base until the next vehicle goes back to Earth.
7. Dateline Moonbase: Journalists embedded at lunar base report on technical, physical and emotional challenges of living and working in space.
8. First return to the moon; living in the habitat facing challenges with teammates, environment, communication, danger, adversity. Faced with unexpected conflicts, danger, health or injuries.
9. Following a diverse group of tweens in any town America that become interested in space travel. One is chosen later to travel to the moon and another to document the adventure.

Sharing the Vision,
Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

A Perspective from a Baby Boomer

I must admit that last week I got that pleased, grateful feeling like the one I get from being “carded” at the grocery store checkout line when I purchase a bottle of wine. It has been a while since I was the age of a Gen Y’er, but I took it as a great complement to be mistaken for one last week. For those that do not know me, I am a “Baby Boomer” with 20 years of experience at JSC and most of my blog entries have been from a “boomer” perspective. Granted, those that know me best would not categorize me as having the typical “Baby Boomer” perspective, but is there really a perspective that captures an entire Generation? No, but I do think there is a difference between the image we have of NASA before we arrive and the image after we have been supporting this great organization. So, let me share how the image changed for me and why it is good to revisit our original vision. To that end, join me in visualizing those two images.

For many in my generation it was the Apollo program or Star Trek that sealed our future with NASA. For me it was the original voyages of the Starship Enterprise.  Yes, I am one of those that would love to see the mission of the agency to be, “To Boldly Go where No one has gone before.” My expectation was that upon entering the gates of NASA, I would find someone working on the Warp drive or a transporter. I thought that there would be people working on projects that pushed the boundaries of space and time. I expected Mission Control to look like the deck of the Enterprise. Instead, I found the Apollo Mission Control configuration that worked exceedingly well into the late 1980’s. Now don’t get me wrong; I believe that we are executing some very exciting missions and have some incredible technology projects occurring in various organizations around the Agency. My point is that my vision of where NASA was heading was different from the reality. I also found that many of my colleagues shared the same opinion.

Over the past 20 years that vision has been challenged by the realities of what is currently possible in the realm of human spaceflight. My original naiveté was reframed by the wisdom gained over the years and yet, there is much to be gained from recapturing the original vision we had when we first drove through the front gate. About 10 years ago I tried to recapture my initial feeling when I first arrived at JSC. It’s a long, but great story that can be found in the archived article from the NASA ASK magazine. The end result was that I was able to create a lab focused on looking at the leading and even bleeding edge of technology development. I found exciting research occurring inside and outside the agency that reminded me of the Star Trek technologies. There was the quantum pair possibility of either instant communication over large distances or teleportation and the potential holodeck application of the 3D visualization research at the University of Central Florida. In recapturing my original vision I found labs around the Agency that were collaborating and searching for new, creative ideas around the world. 

Now in 2008 I find myself wondering, what was that original vision of NASA for many of my Generation and the following Generations? What are the reasons why that original vision was not achieved? I carry a Motorola Razr in my pocket to communicate, so why can’t NASA push the boundaries of space and time? Earlier this year the Advanced Planning office asked a team of Generation Y leaders where they wanted JSC to be when they became Center Director or Program Managers.  We were asked by many, “Why did you ask Gen Y?” Partly, because they remember the feeling and vision they first had when they arrived at NASA. So think back and recall your original expectations when you arrived at NASA and hold it up to the view gained from wisdom over the years. Then see what unfolds. Yes, I am looking for my fellow Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers to offer their view of the future! Does your original expectation match the reality of where you are at now, FANTASTIC! Please, let me know. If it doesn’t, in what ways does it not match?

I’m looking forward to your feedback.

Sharing the Vision,
Steven Gonzalez, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

Shift Happens

There is a great video called “Shift Happens” that I would highly recommend. Even though there are advocates and critics on both sides of this video, it brings up some excellent points about how the environment is changing around us and encourages one to consider what we are doing to prepare for the shift. During the spring of 2008, quite a bit of activity had occurred that hint at a shift in the JSC community towards the Center Directors Vision. It has been exciting in so many arenas that I’m reminded of the line from the movie Princess Bride, where Mandy Patinkin tries to sum up the events that have transpired, “Let me ‘splain…. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” So, to sum up…

Back in May JSC had its first Vision Forum aimed at getting a broad spectrum of opinions on a JSC 20 year vision and the associated set of tactics that Mike Coats had requested from a team of Next Gen’ers. The JSC 20 year vision was to capture that Generations perspective on the JSC environment as it supported the Agency’s strategic goals when they became Directors and Program Managers.  The Vision forum was attended by a great mix of generations, disciplines and organizations. We received a great deal of feedback with two overriding themes that captured the general mood of the event. First, everyone agreed with the attributes captured in the JSC 20 Year Vision and secondly, everyone wanted to know how they could be more involved in the activities to move the center forward. It was energizing to see the enthusiasm and interest from so many wanting to help steer the future direction of the Johnson Space Center.

During the first week of June the JSC 20 year vision was presented to the JSC Leadership team. Not only was it well received but we discovered activities being conducted in each of the directorates that are moving the Center towards a more open, collaborative, innovative, integrated organization. We also discovered there was a great deal of synergy between the 20 year vision tactics and a set of engagement teams that Mike Coats’ Innovation Council was considering deploying. Also, there was a great deal of overlap between the vision and the focus of the Innovation and Inclusion Council. The focus of this council is to continue to grow an environment of open mindedness, inclusion and innovation.

At the end of June, the Innovation Council, JSC 20 year vision and a set of initiatives from JSC’s Joint Leadership Team were merged and presented to the JSC Joint Leadership Team. The resulting recommendation was the formation of seven engagement teams to identify activities to address various aspects of the JSC community. These focus of the seven teams are as follows: Information Technology; Recruiting/Ultimate Employee Experience; Mentoring; Work/Life Fit; Awards and Recognition; Barrier Analysis and the Communication Teams. An exciting shift is happening at JSC.  My question this week is what can be done across the Agency to encourage a shift across all NASA centers?

Sharing the Vision,
Steven Gonzalez, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office


Back in the fall of 2006, the Advanced Planning office pulled together a team of innovative and creative thinkers to draft a “Blueprint” for JSC for the next 20 years. This team included four JSC employees that would potentially be Program Managers or Directors in the year 2025. The “Blueprint” served as the basis for the dialogue amongst the JSC Senior Leadership. In the fall of 2007, Barbara Zelon, currently the Communications Integration Lead, Constellation Orion Project, tapped into the Generation Y community for a presentation to the JSC Strategic Communications Panel. The authors of this presentation included a member of the “Blueprint” team from the previous year. The presentation captured among other topics, the perspectives of how the Generation Y Community received and shared communications and their Generations perspective on NASA. Barbara and I and others, worked with them on the second iteration of this presentation that was eventually presented at the AIAA Exploration Conference in Denver. This presentation has received a great deal of publicity earlier this year, which prompted Mr. Coats and the Advanced Planning office to request an offsite to gain additional insight from this community. Building upon what was started two years ago, we asked the authors of the “Generation Y” presentation to pull together 30 of their peers for an offsite focused on the future Direction of JSC.

What I found most interesting about the offsite were the similarities that cross the Generations. The desire to make a difference and to be in the center of the activity is the same spirit that filled the Baby Boomer and Generation X community when they arrived at JSC. In the Apollo era there were not any SAGES (Shuttle and Apollo Generation Expert Services) to tap into for advice. It was the “20 something” and “30 something” that were the program managers and directors, with a passion to change the world, without having to wait for a decade to take on their leadership role. Additionally, for those Generation Y’ers that are fortunate enough to join the NASA community, their passion for the mission of the Agency equals that of any Boomer or X’ers.

Yet, there is a difference with this next Generation. Even though we discovered an incredible diversity within this community, more so than is captured in the Generation Y presentation, there are a few themes that this Agency and Center will need to address as it considers how to maintain and continually engage this incredible community. The first is the “Digital divide”. This term has been used quite a bit in reference to the technology gap associated with the varying income level across the United States, but for me it has a different implication to the standard practices found in the Agency. For example it is not the connectivity and use of Social Media tools (blogs, chats, virtual environments, wikis, etc.) by this Generation does not, on its own, create the divide. The source of the “Digital Divide” is the very different conversations that occur digitally versus those that occur verbally and the information that is shared digitally versus verbally. I can write pages on this topic alone, but suffice it to say that the conversations that occur in the digital world do not follow our traditional hierarchical processes nor have the same tone as the verbal conversations that occur in conference rooms across the Agency. As time goes on, those that aren’t tapped into these digital conversations will find themselves without a complete picture of the dialogue occurring on any given topic. One final note on this “Digital Divide”, it is not just across Generations. Don’t assume that just because someone is a Generation Y’er that they participate in the digital conversations. You will find Generation Y’ers on both side of the divide.

Secondly the term leadership has very different connotations and meanings across the Generations. Again, a lengthy entry could be devoted to this topic alone. But until then, consider how leadership is defined for a community that consistently networks in a flat and collaborative social network. How does this translate back to the hierarchical culture in the Agency?

So what did this team of Generation Y that participated in the offsite believe was JSC’s value proposition? In short, to be the source of Innovation that pushes the limits of Human space Exploration. Just like the Administrator and JSC’s Center Director, Mike Coats, they see the Agency’s value delivery focused in the future beyond LEO. They believe the key to deliver this value lies in our ability to be Innovative.  Innovation means many things to many communities and their perspective is different from the other Generations.

More on innovation in my next blog. In the mean time, how would you define Innovation?

Sharing the Vision,
Steven Gonzalez, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office