Spaceflight Now's NASA still looking for new human spaceflight chief says:

In August, Bridenstine said NASA is “looking wide and far” for a new human spaceflight chief at NASA Headquarters.

“We’re doing a nationwide search,” he said Aug. 21. “The challenge is … when it comes to these kind of activities, there’s very few people on the planet that have experience with human spaceflight missions, that have experience managing large programs. We are, at this point, wide open, looking at all the possible alternatives of various people with various types of expertise that could lead human exploration and operations. So at this point, we have not even begun to narrow the field.”

and later

Bowersox said that once NASA names the permanent head of the human exploration and operations mission directorate, the new manager will be charged to determine a new target launch date for Artemis 1, with a schedule that includes extra time to address unforeseen problems that may crop up during testing.

“Right after naming a permanent associate administrator, we expect, within a month or two, that person would have time to come up with a date that they can be ready to commit to Congress on,” Bowersox said Wednesday in response to a question from subcommittee chair Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma.

Ken Bowersox... became the acting associate administrator for NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate after Gerstenmaier’s ouster in July.

Now this certainly seems like a highly desirable position, who wouldn't want to be a new NASA employee "charged to determine a new target launch date for Artemis 1" and "be ready to commit to Congress"?

Question: How often has NASA brought in people from outside to be responsible for making important decisions?

  • $\begingroup$ Oh I see, it got partially posted before you were finishing typing, flag retracted. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 11:08

2 Answers 2


During Project Apollo it was extremely common.

Two among many:

Sam Phillips, Air Force general who managed Air Force missile development programs, drafted by NASA to direct the entire Apollo Program.

Joseph Shea, from Bell Labs and the Titan inertial guidance system, brought in to head the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office.

For more you can browse the "Biographies of Key Apollo Managers".

Bringing in outsiders with demonstrated capabilities is a good idea. Many of NASA's problems in the recent past, IMHO, have been due to promoting people from within into positions they were not fit to fill.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "promoting people from within into positions they were not fit to fill" – This is called the Peter Principle: "People in a hierarchy rise to their level of incompetence". If someone is good at their job, they get rewarded with a promotion. However, in their new job, they are not doing the same thing as they did before, i.e. they are not doing the same thing they demonstrated being good at. Either they are also good at their new job, in which case they are rewarded with a promotion, or they aren't, in which case they stay at their job. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 11:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Which means that a stable equilibrium is reached, when everybody has been promoted to their maximum incompetency. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 11:03
  • $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag: No, there are basically three stable situations. To see this, you have to realize that the person deciding on promotions must have been promoted themselves to that position. The Peter Principle describes the mildly incompetent organization, where everyone is promoted just once too often, including the person deciding on promotions. In the wildly incompetent organization, the person making the promotions is also wildly incompetent, but this organization is not stable for obvious reasons. Finally, in a competent organization the person deciding on promotions is also competent. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 13:28

During the Apollo program, NASA headquarters asked AT&T for technical advice. They created the subsidiary Bellcomm specifically for this task, hiring staff from Bell Laboratories as well as outside experts. At the time, NASA's centers (Houston, Huntsville, Kennedy) were focused on spacecraft and facility development, so many of the "big picture" decisions were left to headquarters and -- by extension -- Bellcomm. Some of the decisions made by Bellcomm and rubber-stamped by headquarters include:

  • The choice between direct, Earth-orbit-rendezvous, and lunar-orbit-rendezvous mission mode. They made the estimations of cost and likelihood of success for each of the modes:

    Holmes immediately directed the contractor engineers to work with Joseph Shea, his Office of Systems chief, first on the study of the mode issue and then on the defense of NASA's decision to land on the moon via the lunar-rendezvous method.

    Chariots for Apollo, chapter 5

  • On January 5, 1968, Bellcomm presented a mission plan. The first landing would be on a flat mare near the equator, with two EVAs to prove the spacecraft technology. The rest of the phase 1 missions would be 6 months apart, with 3 EVAs. Each mission would leave a surface experiment package behind. Free-return trajectory would be eliminated with the third mission. Phase 2 would be extended missions with 3 days on the lunar surface and 6 moonwalks.

    The actual Apollo missions largely followed Bellcomm's phase 1 and phase 2 recommendations. However, their plan extended further. Phase 3 was a CSM-only flight that would stay in a lunar polar orbit for 28 days. Phase 4 was two missions each two weeks on the lunar surface. Each mission would launch a separate, unmanned cargo module in advance to the landing site. Phases 3 and 4 were later scrubbed by budget cuts.

  • Bellcomm planned some of the trajectories:

    Once the route studies were completed, Shea decided that Bellcomm engineers should dip into mission planning and produce some "reference trajectories" -- a careful analysis of everything involved in flying the space vehicles from the earth to the moon and back.

  • Bellcomm recommended the landing sites, which were approved as proposed.

  • Bellcomm calculated the launch windows.

  • It was Bellcomm's idea to crash the spent Saturn third stage into the moon, to create an artificial moonquake.

Some of Bellcomm's employees ended up working for NASA. Most notable was Farouk El-Baz, who headed the landing site selection committee and trained astronauts.

  • $\begingroup$ This is really interesting! As far as I can tell, Bell labs (and its offshoots) pretty much defined the 2nd half of the 20th century's technological innovation, or at least them and IBM. fyi per the Farouk El-Baz reference, I've just asked When was it ever considered that the desert might be “man-made”, or otherwise anthropocenically-induced? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 4:49
  • $\begingroup$ Bellcomm was a NASA contractor. Is that what the question was about? I thought it was about people joining NASA itself. IMHO 'rubber-stamped' is overstating the case and misleading. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 12:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "I know you understand that any such arrangement can in no way impair NASA's direct responsibility for all such decisions in the planning, engineering, and procurement areas." James Webb to AT&T. about.att.com/ecms/dam/corpcomm/ec/… $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 12:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.