- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

A purge of 50 to 100 senior managers at NASA is creating a “climate of fear” among employees, mirroring agency culture prior to the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion in 2003, says an agency watchdog.

At least 25 managers have resigned under pressure since the first week of June and nearly 75 more managers are targeted for elimination by mid-August, says Keith Cowing, editor of NASAwatch.com

The former NASA scientist broke the story of the impending purge after his Web site was inundated with e-mail and leaked memos from former colleagues. Employees are “hunkering down” in fear of being fired and are afraid to offer new ideas or criticism, he said.

Mike Griffin was sworn in as the new NASA administrator on April 14 and today makes his first appearance before the House Committee on Science. He has been praised by politicians on both sides of the aisle, but lawmakers plan to question him on the massive reorganization. Panel members also will discuss next month’s resumption of space shuttle flights announced last week and President Bush’s proposed Moon to Mars mission.

A NASA spokesman could not be reached for comment, and Mr. Griffin has declined to discuss the personnel moves during other interviews.

“The climate of fear is back,” said Mr. Cowing, referring to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board findings that “NASA organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as the foam.”

The $2 billion shuttle exploded upon re-entry Feb. 1, 2003, killing seven astronauts. The program was grounded pending an investigation, which found that foam broke off during liftoff and damaged the wing.

“The Columbia board said people were afraid to speak out — in other words — management problems,” Mr. Cowing said. “So what is Griffin doing? Getting rid of people running the Return to Flight program. I see echoes of Columbia, he is re-creating stress on people who are already doing the most stressful jobs of their careers.

“It sends a wrong signal when you put people’s bosses in rockets and launch them out the window,” Mr. Cowling said.

The Columbia report said, “At the most basic level, organizational culture defines the assumptions that employees make as they carry out their work. It is a powerful force that can persist through reorganizations and the change of key personnel. It can be a positive or a negative force.”

Earlier in his career at NASA, Mr. Griffin served as chief engineer and associate administrator for exploration and worked in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, prior to his appointment, headed the space department at Johns Hopkins University.

In his first address to NASA employees, Mr. Griffin said the agency has an ambitious agenda and that “it’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be hectic, but we will do it together.”

The managers are resigning rather than accepting forced reassignments to menial jobs at far-away posts. In one June 8 memo, Craig Steidle, who headed the exploration program, said, “Yesterday, I was offered a reassignment to another job within NASA at one of our centers, which I declined. Declining the reassignment means that I will be leaving NASA at the end of the month.

“When an organization gets a new leader, it is usually customary for that leader to bring in his or her own management team, and this is what Dr. Griffin has decided to do,” Mr. Steidle said.

A pregnant Karen Poniatowski, assistant associate administrator for launch services, had to choose between reassignment 3,000 miles away within weeks of giving birth or resign, Mr. Cowing said.

Mr. Cowing said a statement by Mr. Griffin on June 21 at a Space Transportation Association breakfast shows the administrator’s poor people skills.

“With regard to feelings — I don’t do feelings — just think of me as Spock,” Mr. Griffin said, referring to the Starship Enterprise’s hyperlogical Vulcan science officer in “Star Trek.”

“He’s gifted in the knowledge of rocket science, he’s very smart guy. He gets an A in rocket science, but an F in people,” Mr. Cowing said.

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