Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory I want you to look at the key stakeholders in the JPL NASA case. Ask yourself who

Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory I want you to look at the key stakeholders in the JPL NASA case. Ask yourself who are these stakeholders and make a list. Also, ask yourselves, why did Golden come up with this mandate of “faster, better, cheaper?” Think about what enormous catastrophe triggered some of these events and these changes in the agency.

Knowledge management (KM) is the name of a concept in which an enterprise deliberately and comprehensively gathers, organizes, shares, and analyzes its knowledge in terms of resources, documents, and people skills. In early 1998, it was believed that few enterprises actually had a comprehensive knowledge management practice (by any name) in operation. Advances in technology and the way we access and share information has changed that; many enterprises now have some kind of knowledge management framework in place. However, it is important to note what knowledge management (which can seem very vague) actually “is” and what it “is not.” This week, you will get a very good handle on what knowledge management is and related concepts and you will learn the foundations and guidelines for effective knowledge management.

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RE V . OCT OB E R 2 9 , 2 0 0 2
Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
Downsizing at NASA over the last decade through attrition and buyouts has resulted in an imbalance in
NASA’s skill mix.1
— The President’s Management Agenda, Fiscal Year 2002
By the end of this decade, many of the most experienced scientists and engineers at NASA and JPL are going
to retire. If we don’t have systems in place to retain more of what they know, our institution is going to suffer.
— Jeanne Holm, Chief Knowledge Architect for NASA
In the spring of 2002, Jeanne Holm, Chief Knowledge Architect for the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was giving a tour of JPL. Stopping at a viewing
stage above JPL’s mission control center, Holm explained the growing need for knowledge management at
Almost 40% of JPL’s science and engineering workforce is currently eligible for retirement. In just
four years, half of NASA’s entire workforce will be eligible. Many of these people are the most
experienced project managers—the people who worked on Apollo (the mission to the Moon) and built the
first space shuttle. Yet, we have few programs designed to bring their wisdom into our institutional
In the past 10 years, the budgets on our missions have been radically reduced, missions have multiplied
ten-fold, and our scientists and engineers have been pushed to the limits. Three years ago, we endured the
highly publicized failure of two missions to Mars. NASA as a whole, and JPL in particular, have really
struggled to find the right balance between mission performance and cutting-edge space exploration. With
some of our most experienced scientists and engineers poised to leave in the coming years, these issues
have the potential to become even more severe.
1 President’s Management Agenda, Fiscal Year 2002, , p. 13, accessed
September 23, 2002.
Professor Dorothy Leonard and Senior Researcher David Kiron of the Global Research Group prepared this case. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for
class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management.
Copyright © 2002 President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685, write Harvard
Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission
of Harvard Business School.
Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
In 2000, the U.S. Congress, which funds NASA, called on the agency to develop appropriate knowledge
management (KM) tools to reduce the risk of future mission failures and to address impending retirements. Until
2002, most of NASA’s knowledge management tools were information technology systems. NASA’s most seniorlevel KM champion, Chief Information Officer Lee Holcomb, had sponsored the development and
implementation of these systems. But as Holm explained, IT systems alone could not fully address NASA’s
mandate; to meet that challenge, the agency had to change its culture:
IT systems, such as Internet-based databases and portals that organize and make more accessible
lessons learned have been relatively easy to pitch and to sell to people at the agency to fund. (See Exhibit
1 for annual KM budget.) The problem is, IT systems don’t address the critical need for the most
experienced people to mentor and train others or to share tacit knowledge from one mission to another.
Without this critical knowledge, missions will fail or be delayed or cancelled. For example, assessing risk
in designing spacecraft components is one of the most difficult tasks; novices can learn this only from
experienced engineers and scientists, or trial and error. What we need is a culture shift in the way
experiential knowledge is cultivated and managed.
Our team is really faced with a dilemma. Do we continue on the IT track, successfully pitching IT
systems that improve NASA’s ability to capture and distribute knowledge? Many senior managers are
most comfortable supporting these initiatives. Or do we take a riskier tack? Do we go to the Chief
Administrator of NASA, Sean O’Keefe, and say, “Look, you know us for IT, and that’s what we’ve been
doing, but what we really need to do is change the knowledge-sharing culture at the agency.” This second
option would require higher funding levels, not only for us in Knowledge Management, but also across
the agency. (See Exhibit 2 financial information about each option.) It would also be a harder option to
pitch, especially given that NASA is four billion dollars over-budget on the International Space Station. I
wouldn’t be able to show Mr. O’Keefe a specific return on investment. I can only promise him that if he
makes the investment, we’ll be a better agency. The risk is, if the argument is unsuccessful, we lose
credibility at a time when we need it the most.
NASA Background
NASA was conceived at a time of crisis for the United States. On October 4, 1957, the former Soviet Union
launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth. Surprised by the technological feat and alarmed
by the prospect of falling behind its Cold War adversary, U.S. Congress established NASA on October 1, 1958,
just days before the anniversary of Sputnik’s success.
NASA was assembled from several existing federal agencies and organizations. The largest of these, the
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), supervised the nation’s rocket, jet, and space systems.
Primarily a research organization, NACA contributed 8000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million, three
research laboratories—Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight
Propulsion Laboratory—and two smaller test facilities. NASA also integrated several other groups, including the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory which was managed by the California Institute of Technology for the Army, the Army
Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, and space scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory in
Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
The Apollo Era—Mission to the Moon
On May 25, 1961, three weeks after Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, then President John
F. Kennedy announced “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is
out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” 1According to one political scientist, the
“Moon Project was chosen to symbolize U.S. strength in the head-to-head competition with the Soviet Union.”2
Despite little public support,3 federal funding for the Moon Project quickly reached astronomical levels. The
space agency’s budget grew from $500 million in 1960 to $5.2 billion in 1965, or 5.3% of the federal budget. 4
The cost of a roundtrip mission to the Moon was estimated at $20 billion ($179 billion in 2001 dollars). Staffing
for the Moon Project grew proportionally. In the mid-1960s, NASA staffing levels peaked: 36,000 civil servants
in 1966 and 376,700 contractors in 1965. 5 One in 50 Americans worked on some aspect of the Apollo program.
For the United States, only the Manhattan Project (a military project) and the building of the Panama Canal (a
civilian project) were comparable in terms of scale and cost. 6
At the time, all NASA centers had experience managing small-scale research projects, but had little experience
managing large-scale projects and operations. One former manager remarked, “NASA had considerable technical
depth, but almost no program management experience.” 7 NASA established an Apollo program office at its D.C.
headquarters and imported an Air Force management group that had supervised the Minutemen Intercontinental
Ballistic Missile program.
By centralizing authority for design, engineering, procurement, testing, construction, manufacturing, spare
parts, logistics, training, and operations at headquarters, the Apollo management team forced adjustments in the
technical cultures that existed at NASA centers. Skeptical of external input and distrustful of outsiders’ work,
centers became more dependent on private industry and headquarters. Centers also prioritized performance,
schedule, and cost. Joseph Gavin, the engineer who led the lunar module project8 for Grumman, recalled:
It took us only a couple of months to learn that there really wasn’t any tradeoff. You absolutely had to
give priority to performance. Then you did the best you could to meet the schedule. Costs came . . . third.
That may sound irresponsible, but when you think about it, that’s the way things had to be for something
1 Stephen J. Garber and Roger D. Launius, “A Brief History of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” June 2001,
, accessed April 21, 2002.
2 Cited in Roger D. Launius, NASA: A History of the U.S. Civil Space Program (Melbourne, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 1994), p. 61.
3 In May 1961, before Kennedy’s announcement, a Gallup public opinion poll found that 58% of the population was against (vs. 38% for) the
United States spending up to $40 billion to send a man to the Moon. Howard E. McCurdy, Inside NASA: High Technology and Organizational
Change in the U.S. Space Program (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 102.
4 Launius, p. 70.
5 McCurdy, p. 101.
6 Launius, p. 55.
7 McCurdy, p. 92.
8 The lunar module was a vehicle that landed astronauts on the Moon and rendezvoused with the orbiting Apollo spacecraft.
Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
like Apollo. If a major project is truly innovative, you cannot possibly know its exact cost and its exact
schedule at the beginning. And if in fact
you do know the exact cost and the exact schedule, chances are that the technology is obsolete. 9
In July 1969, riding Apollo 11, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land
on the Moon and return safely home. 10
Post-Apollo Era
In 1970, flush with Apollo’s success, NASA sent a budget proposal to then president Richard Nixon that
included funding for a manned Mars mission, a lunar space station, and a 50-person Earth-orbiting station serviced
by a Space Shuttle.11 In the midst of the Vietnam War, Nixon recognized a diminished public appetite for space
exploration spending and limited NASA’s big budget items to the Shuttle program. Congress, similarly attuned
to public sentiment, was skeptical of funding even the remaining shuttle component. Top NASA administrators
had to sell the shuttle to Congress as a project that would, in large part, pay for itself. The Shuttle, they argued,
would be like a bus, routinely ferrying scientists, military and scientific payloads, and commercial satellites back
and forth in space. Congress funded the Shuttle, but cut NASA’s overall budget in half.
During the 1970s, NASA accomplished several projects, including Skylab, Apollo-Soyez Test Project, Project
Viking, and Project Voyager. Skylab was an experimental, three person, Earthorbiting space station that used a
reconfigured stage of the Saturn V rocket stage as its basic component. The Apollo-Soyez Test Project tested the
9 MIT Alumni Association, “Fly me to the moon—Interview with Joseph G. Gavin, Jr., head of the lunar module project,” Technology Review,
July 1, 1994.
10 Just three years later, in 1972, Apollo 17 completed the program’s final mission to the Moon.
11 Rogers Commission Report on space shuttle disaster, , accessed May 21, 2002.
Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
compatibility of U.S. and USSR docking systems and symbolized lessening tensions between the two cold war
adversaries. Project Viking, a billion-dollar mission to Mars, landed two spacecraft on the red planet as well as
an orbiting device that returned useful information about Mars’s atmosphere. Project Voyager sent two
unmanned spacecraft past Jupiter, Saturn, and the outer planets. Voyager’s pictures of the solar system
revolutionized astronomers’ understanding of the outer planets.
In 1977, NASA began building a fleet of four reusable space shuttles. For the Shuttle program, NASA
increased outsourcing to private industry. With management decentralized, some centers returned to their preApollo technical culture. Project managers for certain elements of the Shuttle program felt more accountable to
their center than to the Shuttle program. 12 Vital program information frequently bypassed the Shuttle Program
Manager, who lacked the authority to compel the information-sharing necessary for decision-making. Preoccupied
with controlling costs on the Shuttle, NASA resisted advancing technology, streamlined management, and
adopted commercialstyle business practices. The most experienced Center engineers, those who had built the
Apollo spacecraft, became involved more with integration and contractor oversight and less with design. With
government workers overseeing contractors’ every move, NASA developed an aversion to
On April 12, 1981 the first shuttle, Columbia, was launched, and hailed as a sign of continued American
superiority in space technology. After the fourth shuttle flight in 1982, senior NASA officials declared, under
congressional pressure, that the Shuttle program was “operational”—i.e., ready to begin routine flights. 14 This
declaration riled many within the agency who believed that the Shuttle, given its inherently risky technology
systems, would never warrant that description. One Shuttle program executive said, “to talk about spinning that
off as an operational vehicle is kind of crazy to me.” 15 In 1985, NASA planned to launch nine shuttle missions
and projected an annual rate of 24 flights by 1990. The Shuttle program however, was unprepared for this launch
In January 1986, the Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members.
Investigations discovered that the cause was failure of the O-ring, a faulty joint in the Shuttle’s right solid rocket
motor, which had eroded over the nine missions. A flood of government reports, however, also revealed
12 McCurdy.
13 Ibid.
14 Safety regulators, however, advised that the shuttle was a developmental, not an operational, system.
15 McCurdy, p. 144.
Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
significant flaws in managerial decision-making leading up to Challenger’s loss, including its risk-management
procedures. 16 The Shuttle program was grounded for more than 2.5 years as NASA reviewed the Shuttle’s
management, design, and manufacture.
A year after Challenger’s loss, NASA was struggling to regain its confidence. Describing the American space
program at that time, the chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Planetary and Lunar
exploration, Robert Pegin, said, “We’re really in a mess.”18 Former astronaut Eugene Cernan said, “Low morale
and frustration is the description of the U.S. space program.” 17 By October 1987, on the anniversary of Sputnik’s
successful launch into space, the United States found itself back where it was in 1957—lagging behind the Soviet
Union’s space program.20
Corrective measures were attempted. NASA centralized space shuttle authority in Washington, as it had done
with the Apollo project. An executive Shuttle team board reviewed technical specifications, not just budgets as it
had been doing. In November 1988, after several postponements, the Shuttle Endeavor launched and returned
safely to Earth. For NASA, success was short-lived. In 1990, NASA sent the first of its four great space
observatories into orbit, the $3 billion Hubble Telescope, with a flawed mirror that could have been detected and
fixed prior to launch. In 1992, NASA was assigned a new administrator, Daniel Goldin, who described the agency
16 Rogers Commission Report, Appendix F, ,
accessed July 10, 2002.
According to one of the commissioners on the report, the contractor engineers at Thiokol and NASA management came to accept erosion and
blow-by as unavoidable and an acceptable flight risk. NASA and Thiokol accepted escalating risk apparently because they “got away with it
last time.” As Commissioner Feynman observed, the decision-making was “a kind of Russian roulette. . . . (The Shuttle) flies (with O-ring
erosion) and nothing happens. Then it is suggested, therefore, that the risk is no longer so high for the next flights. We can lower our standards
a little bit because we got away with it last time. . . . You got away with it, but it shouldn’t be done over and over again like that.” (Rogers
Commission Report, Chapter 6, , accessed July 10,
2002.) 18 Lowther, “Soviets racing to final frontier,” Toronto Star, October 4, 1987.
17 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
he took over: “We were reeling from massive failures. The Challenger had blown up. The Hubble was blind in
orbit. The weather satellites weren’t working. The shuttle was plagued with mechanical problems. It
would take off on schedule only 23% of the time, and when it did, everyone would hold their breath.”18
The Goldin Era
Goldin’s mandate was to increase mission performance, cut costs, and reduce NASA’s size. Between 1993
and 1999, Goldin reduced NASA’s workforce by 28% from 25,000 to 18,000 employees (civil servants). With a
virtual hiring freeze in effect, NASA relied increasingly on outside contractors. 19
Goldin decentralized agency management and placed shuttle management in the hands of commercial
enterprise, giving oversight to Johnson Space Center. For the International Space Station, Goldin assigned
management to Marshall Space Flight Center. Goldin’s most noteworthy management reform was to move NASA
away from producing billion-dollar missions that required a decade to develop, build, and launch (e.g., the Hubble
Telescope) and toward less expensive and more innovative projects that were produced on a faster timetable.
Nicknamed “Faster, Better, Cheaper” or “FBC,” the reforms were intended to unleash dormant creativity and
reduce aversion to risk. According to Goldin:
A lot of our programs were so big and expensive that there was this incredible fear of failure. So I said.
. . . we’ll make failure acceptable by breaking programs into smaller pieces and increasing the number and
diversity of programs. That way, if there was a failure, we wouldn’t be losing a whole program. . . . You
18 “Leading Ferociously,” a conversation with Daniel Goldin, Harvard Business Review (May 2002): 22–25.
19 Mark Carreau and William E. Clayton Jr., “Significant job cuts for NASA/Employees offered early retirement or face termination, Houston
Chronicle, March 1, 1995.
Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JP…
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