A homemade film shot by a NASA astronaut takes a harsh look at the agency's sometimes impersonal bureaucracy in hopes of encouraging employees to keep a more open mind when confronted with dissenting opinions or new ideas.
Written and produced by four-time spaceflier Andrew Thomas, the 10-minute satirical video was posted to YouTube — with NASA's approval — after being screened at an agency leadership retreat last month. The film follows a young engineer who attempts to present an innovative idea for a spacecraft design only to be stymied at every turn by program managers.
"The point about the video is it's not fiction," Thomas told Space.com Monday. "All of those scenes are real. They've actually happened to people to various degrees."
The project is the result of a Barrier Analysis team assembled by senior NASA managers as part of a wider effort to foster innovation and inclusion at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The center is home to NASA's astronaut corps and Mission Control rooms for the space shuttle and the international space station, among other programs.
Thomas said he based the script for the film on accounts described by NASA employees and contractors, as well as some instances that he witnessed himself.
In the film, the young engineer is met with administrative reasons to reject her idea, but is never given a chance to have a technical discussion on the merits of her suggestions. In each case, text captions appear to question the reasons behind the constant objections.
"We're not saying this is the universal response," Thomas said. "But elements of those cultural barriers exist at JSC and would stop innovation and inclusion."
Thomas and his teammates also gave a presentation to NASA officials with suggestions on how to avoid repeating the situations depicted in his film. He also hopes to make a sequel, one that illustrates how different management techniques can help encourage new ideas.
Thomas said he and his team did experience some trepidation on how the video would be received by NASA managers at Johnson Space Center. So far, the response has been strong and mostly positive, with center director Michael Coats giving his approval to make the video public to expand its reach after its screening last month, he added.
"I found it extraordinarily funny and not at all funny," NASA's former shuttle program manager Wayne Hale wrote in a NASA blog entry last week. Hale, who now serves as NASA's deputy associate administrator for strategic partnerships, posted the video to his YouTube account last week.
After the tragic loss of seven astronauts aboard NASA's shuttle Columbia in 2003, investigators faulted NASA's internal culture for its inability to hear or act on dissenting opinions. Since then, the agency has worked to foster a more open culture, but there will always be room for improvement.
"I think it is something that does need to be addressed because we don't want to have another accident," said Thomas, whose last spaceflight — the STS-114 mission in 2005 — was NASA's first shuttle flight following the Columbia tragedy. "And in our business, that's what happens when you have that kind of culture."
Since Hale posted the video on YouTube on Jan. 27, it has received more than 28,000 views by Internet denizens.
"It has really been resonating with people," Thomas said. "I'm enormously surprised."