| Antonio Stradivari, creator
of the great Stradivarius violin, is widely regarded as
one of the world's master craftsmen. Nearly 300 years
after his death the village of Cremona in Italy where
Stradivari lived and worked is still imbued with his spirit.
Violinmakers from all over the world continue to visit
there to pay homage to his genius.
I learned of this, ironically, at a management conference
four years ago. We were shown a video about a present-day
American violinmaker who had made his own pilgrimage to
Cremona. To visit the home of the greatest of all violinmakers,
he believed, was the best possible way to experience "true
passion" for his craft.
I mention this story because it signified a turning
point in my life. I had been with NASA for nine years
when I attended the conference and saw this video. It
occurred to me afterwards that I too longed to feel
passionate about my work again.
At the start of my NASA career I had no shortage of passion.
I believed I was at the center of the most amazing technological
advances in science -- the Command and Control Center
at the Johnson Space Center -- could there be a more exciting
and glamorous assignment for a young engineer who'd spent
his boyhood fascinated by space travel and the Apollo
put my finger on a single event, but I no longer
felt the passion I once did.
NASA was an amazing place then, brimming with excitement
and passion, teeming with people who believed there
was no end to where their creative energies could take
them. But something changed in me over those nine years.
I cannot put my finger on a single event, but I no longer
felt the passion that I once did.
When I returned home from the conference, I stewed
about my feeling for a couple of weeks. I told my wife
I've got to turn things around. I said I would give
myself a year, and if nothing changed I was going to
leave NASA. I was too young and had too much energy
to allow my spirit to languish in a place I no longer
felt passionate about.
Looking around me, I saw a different NASA than the place
I had come to nine years ago. NASA was not immune to the
effects of government downsizing, and the team that worked
in the development of the Mission Control Center (MCC)
had been reduced dramatically. As the emphasis for privatization
and consolidated government contracts grew, we were struggling
to understand what was happening at NASA. To many of us,
it seemed like we no longer had the technical skills to
validate that what the contractors were telling us was
true. We were relying on their expertise. What was our
future? Did we even have a future at NASA? Rather than
rocket scientists, I felt we were more rocket contract
rocket scientists, I felt we were more rocket contract
Weeks passed and I agonized over what to do. Engineers
know how to talk about projects and budgets, but when
the subject turns to how we feel, well, passion isn't
the kind of word you hear used around NASA very often.
Every time I considered approaching a colleague, I worried
I would be seen as a complainer, or worse, laughed at.
Finally I sent an email to the other 19 members of the
team and asked point blank, "Do you still feel passionate
about your work?"
I dreaded opening my email after that, but it turned
out to be better than I ever could have hoped. The response
was an overwhelming expression of solidarity. Yes, let's
talk about it, everyone said. And so we did.
At our first meeting we shared with each other why
we had come to NASA, the dreams we had when we walked
through the door our first day however many years ago
that might be. Our reasons for being here were universal.
Everyone believed we'd be on Mars by now, or we'd be
colonizing the moon. The farthest reaches of the galaxy
would forever be expanding as long as we had the imagination
to see a way there. It was tremendously empowering for
everyone, and for me it was an affirmation of everything
I believed I still could feel.
All of us wanted to try and recapture that sense of
excitement we once had. We began by asking each other
to define his or her own vision. We put these on a white
board and attempted to synthesize them into one unified,
collective vision that could work for us all.
We decided to go beyond the near term, so the vision
we plotted had to take us beyond the next decade, beyond
the next two decades even. We selected the year 2076
as a target date, the tercentenary, a date that symbolized
another watershed in our nation's coming of age, one
that was so far in the future that it could continue
to fuel our dreams for the rest of our careers.
Do we sound crazy? Like kids? Perhaps we were, but
not one of the adults on our team doubted our seriousness
or believed we lacked the resolve to go the distance.
Next, we identified everyone's role in bringing the vision
to life. In essence, what we hoped to accomplish was no
less than a complete paradigm shift in NASA's current
operations strategy for exploring space. Presently we
send small teams into space with a large support team
on the ground. By 2076 we believed we could put large
numbers of people in space and take Command and Control
with them. Our mission, as we saw it, was to come up with
a plan to achieve the infrastructure and technology that
would make this vision a reality.
knew it, companies like CISCO, Xiotech, Silicon
Graphics and Sun wanted to partner with us.
Once we knew what we wanted to accomplish, the vision
began to take shape as a lab, the Qualification and
Utilization for Electronics Systems Technology (QUEST)
lab. The symbolism of the word QUEST was important.
It signified that we were striving to go beyond what
we were doing, what we could do, beyond the Space Station,
beyond inhabiting Mars, all the way to whatever new
technologies could emerge by the year 2076.
The bitter reality of it all was that there was no
money for this. We went to management and explained
our vision, and they said it sounds great but we've
got Station and Shuttle challenges, and right now we
can't fund this. The reality, and we were not naive
about it, was that we were also still expected to be
full-time contract managers.
This did not deter us or force us to scale back our
vision in any way. We reckoned we just had to find alternative
sources of funding. We determined the best way to do
this was by seeking partnerships with private industry.
We knew we had an attractive offer to make to industry.
By presenting them with a chance to be in NASA's Mission
Control Center, we knew they had a strong incentive
for taking us seriously.
It worked. Before we knew it, companies like CISCO,
Xiotech, Silicon Graphics and Sun wanted to partner
with us. In short order we obtained over a million dollars
worth of equipment in technology transfer agreements.
Suddenly, our team was working with the latest and best
technology, and suddenly it was like being a young starry-eyed
engineer again, pushing the envelope, learning new things
and getting core competencies back.
Four years have passed since I sent out that email.
As you can see, I didn't leave NASA. QUEST has provided
me, as well as many of my colleagues, with an outlet
for our dreams and creativity. We take seriously the
vision we have plotted and are working together to make
it a reality. Those readers who feel an affinity with
the struggles our group has undergone, ask yourselves,
"where are you right now regarding your own passion
for your work?" Perhaps it's on you to take the risk
and find others in your office or Center who will join
you in your quest. If you do choose to go this road,
and there is no question it is the road less traveled,
just make sure the vision you forge with your colleagues
is a democratic one, that it embraces everyone's vision.
I wish you the best on your journey.
- Visionary leaders are willing to take the initiative
to render a dream into reality.
- Once you identify where you are regarding your passion
for your work, take risks in finding others who will
join you on your own quest.
- In this era of scarce resources, effective partnerships
can take you a long way.
Search by lesson to find more on:
A. Gonzalez is the Chief of Operations Research
& Strategic Development at the Johnson Space Center.
Prior to this position he was the System Engineering
Lead for the Mission Control Center and the Project
Lead for the QUEST (Qualification and Utilization
of Electronic Systems Technology) lab.