Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Morale Stops Here

Michael Griffin blames anonymous weblogs, critical of Project Constellation, for harming the morale of NASA engineers. Further, he claims that engineering disagreements between NASA insiders and the weblogs have escalated into personal vendettas. The message of the strawman argument is that bloggers should just shut their mouths and let the big boys get on with the serious business of Project Constellation.

I don't know if Mike Griffin has ever known how it feels to be completely demoralized, but I feel demoralized on a daily basis. I have also seen firsthand the ways that professional disagreements over engineering judgments have turned into passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace. There is no virtue in schadenfreude, and I certainly don't wish those things upon anybody. With that being said, none of my experience can be attributed to anything I've read in a weblog (although there's plenty of intelligent criticism to go around.)

In my years as a critic of Mike Griffin's NASA, I have never intended to criticize the engineers who have been tasked to make this plan a reality. They're doing the best they can with the plan they were handed by their management. The engineering staff at NASA-Marshall and the other NASA centers who are working Project Constellation are putting in long days and making great personal sacrifices in order to ensure the success of the Constellation program.

While my critics may disagree, I have no personal vendetta against Mike Griffin, either. I don't think he's done anything illegal, immoral, or scandalous. I'm convinced that he believes 100% in Project Constellation as he's implemented it. The problem is one of vision, and one of pride. Mike Griffin had his own vision for how to implement the Vision for Space Exploration, and his agency rushed a 60-day study based on multiple flawed assumptions. While the Griffin vision is now the law of the land, many of us are disappointed. We want to believe in things like afforability and sustainability. We haven't seen any evidence that "Apollo on Steroids" will be able to avoid the same fate as its namesake.

NASA's engineers are smart people, and they're plenty capable of making their own value judgements about the programs they work on. They don't need anybody's blog to help them make an educated decision. I want NASA’s engineers to be happy. If working on Ares makes them happy, they should keep plugging away. If they can’t stand the work they’re doing, they should try to get reassigned, or find a job outside of NASA that's more rewarding.

Along similar lines, I have made my own value judgments about the worthless nature of the work I have performed for the US Air Force. This miserable experience has soured me towards the engineering profession, the aerospace industry, and government bureaucracy. Next August I bid the Air Force "good riddance" and look for a non-engineering job that promises a rewarding experience of immediate benefit to humanity.

Over the last few months, I have kept a lid on criticism of the Ares I configuration, which should make Mike Griffin and his engineers happy. Fighting The Shaft is futile, as Ares I has progressed far enough where it will probably survive into the next administration. The argument should not be over whether it should be killed, but on ways to make it as safe as possible. But ending all criticism of the Griffin plan won’t fix the problem of NASA morale.

The morale of engineers is directly tied to the work they are given by their management. If you want to keep engineers happy, give them tasks that are worthy of their efforts. When management fails to do that, they have nobody to blame for poor morale but themselves.