By Howard E. McCurdy – A Review
In ‘Inside NASA’ the renowned space historian and sociologist Dr. Howard E. McCurdy, studies NASA’s organizational culture and the agency’s collective attitude towards the work of space exploration in the organization in the early days of NASA as compared to the state of NASA in in the 1970’s and beyond.
The book is a mainly a study of organizational culture with the use of NASA as a case study, rather than a work on the history of NASA. The author uses sociological concepts to explain the decline of NASA as a space-faring organization, its transformation into a bureaucracy and why NASA in the decades after the great success of the lunar landings was unable to replicate the successes of the past.
Dr. McCurdy’s book throws an interesting light on the ways of bureaucratic organizations however, I think ‘Inside NASA’ could have been enhanced by adding an analysis of the organization in light of Cybernetic theories. The transformation of NASA from an objective based organization to one geared towards self-preservation and status quo recalls the difference between the ‘Analytic Paradigm’ and ‘Cybernetic and Cognitive Paradigm’ as theorized by Steinbruner in his Cybernetic Theory of Decision. Steinbruner says that the Analytic Paradigm is geared towards seeking solutions and achieving objectives while the ‘Cybernetic and Cognitive Paradigm’ is geared towards self-perpetuation. Organizations with an Analytic paradigm are sensitive to unexpected outcomes while those with the Cybernetic and Cognitive paradigm focus on eliminating variable and ensuring stability, assuming that conditions will always remain the same (Steinbruner, 1974). Rather than a paradigm change McCurdy views the changes in the agency more in terms of an inevitable ‘organizational life-cycle” where an early culture of risk taking is replaced by one that is occupied with maintenance of the status quo.
McCurdy describes the early days of NASA as a period of great enthusiasm, creativity and innovation. The employees of NASA were imbued with a sense that they were making history. Technical and scientific achievement was the foremost objective in everyone’s minds. The role of engineering project management in the organization was far greater than it is today. The organization worked with a clear vision of their goals, the time available to them for the fulfillment of their objectives and the various constraints placed upon them such as budgetary and cost constraints.
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