Sunday, November 1, 2015

After all my questions, I'm gonna call it home...

Dreams do come true in New Orleans. Dr. Reams, thank you for being my trusted mentor and committee chair in the midst of my doubt. Your confidence in my abilities ignited a sincere passion in me I had not felt since elementary school. I am here because of the countless hours you, Dr. Dismukes, Dr. Lam, and Dr. Keim invested into my studies, my thesis, and most importantly, myself. I am forever in debt because you took a chance on a student with a questionable GPA and an eagerness to prove himself. I would also like to than Lauren DeFrank for providing me with invaluable insight into her thesis which was a foundation for my writing and research. I would also like to thank the National Science Foundation and LSU Center for Energy Studies for funding that allowed me to conduct my research for this thesis.

Mom, I did it! You are my rock and strength in the quiet times when I needed reassurance in my faith and mission. I love you more than I’ll ever be able to express. Dad, you’ve always been there for me. I never had a question you didn’t have an answer to, and the right one to boot. You believed in me and trusted me to this end. I can only hope to be a fraction of the father and hero you are to me someday.

Michael, you and I share a special bond. You don’t even need to read this to know what I’m about to say. We cried as babies, we fought as children, we competed as teenagers, and we are inseparable as adults. You’re the best brother in the world and no matter where our lives take us, you will always be the person I turn to for everything first.

My family is amazing. Without them I wouldn’t have this opportunity to succeed beyond my highest expectations. My cousins deserve a special mention: Rookie, Nick, Shanti, and Tiffany. Thanks for being there every step of the way!

I can’t begin to thank all of the families who have welcomed me into their homes and made me an adopted son in my time in Baton Rouge. Jeannie, Mike, Christian, and Katie; there’s a reason luck is part of your last name. I am so lucky and blessed to know you! Cheryl, Chad, Logan, Lance, and Leah; thank you so much for being there for me from the very start and helping me every step of the way. All of the awesome advice in life and in Christ I received from one member of my “families” or another is the most invaluable resource I will have from my time in Baton Rouge. To Bonnie, John, Jackie, Meg, and Matt Begue; words cannot express how lucky I am to have you all as a sounding board to laugh, think, and celebrate. Same for the Brodnaxes, Catos, Noels, Sieberths, Struppecks…the list goes on forever. Thank you for all of your support and prayer. You all mean the world to me.

First Presbyterian, you have my heart. Every Sunday I would be greeted with handshakes and hugs whether I had the greatest or worst week ever. The lessons I learned from the kids in Children’s Ministry will ring truer than any lesson given in a collegiate classroom. As I prepare to move further into the world, I can say with conviction my bond with Christ is so much deeper because of you. From Pastor Gerrit’s sermons to the indescribable fun I’ve had in Kingdom Kids and Quest and VBS, I hope I’ve made as huge an impact on the life of my church as you have on me.

All of my Teen Titans deserve a shoutout. You guys dealt with me at Blast From The Past and VBS, rolled your sleeves up to work, and got to prank me way too many times. The most fun I’ve had on this journey was with you. Jackie, you are my best friend and little sister I never had. I can’t wait to see you write your own amazing story. Anna, David, Jonathan, Sloane, Anna Catherine, Savannah, Elizabeth, Claire, and Alaina; you guys are all superheroes. If you learn anything from me, wear the socks and bring the chaos.

Every actor needs a supporting cast to be great, but my best friends are much more than that. They deserve the spotlight as well. Gus, without your caffeine and friendship I would never have gotten this far. Tiffany, your candor for GCCS led me to this moment and I hope you will be inspired by mine as well. Celeste, your kindness and compassion have done more than wear off on me, not to mention your perseverance and brilliance! Brittany, your future is so bright I needed sunglasses to write this sentence. I am so lucky to have every one of you in my life.

New Orleans, you were my first love. You raised a native son who will carry in him a black and gold soul forever. This is for you, not to grieve over Katrina, but to remember those days as a reminder that out of the most terrible of tragedies a hope can arise that sings to all corners of the world a song of salvation, love, redemption, and rebirth. As Chris Rose said, “to be engaged in some small way in the revival of one of the great cities of the world is to live a meaningful existence by default.”

My final acknowledgement is for my mentor, Mr. Nathan Woods. You passed far before this dream was realized, but you imbued me with a talent for service. You led me to the Gardere Community Christian School and gave me the heart for all of these kids and this neighborhood through the Red Ball Express. This is my novella writ because of you. 

I know I’m not home, but I’m on my way. But in the meantime, I’m tired of the things that are. This is but a stepping stone to a new story, a fairy tale I will read openly. Most will agree that a man should not read fairy tales, but “when I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” All grown-ups were once children, but only few of them remember it. 

Here’s to happily ever after. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Being Leslie Knope: Part 1

Parks and Recreation was one of the best shows in recent memory to grace our television screens. It was funny, poignant, and an inside peek into the far-from-glamorous world of municipal bureaucracy, albeit comedically exaggerated. Which was alright with me. A veteran of state government internships and survivor of multiple red tape mummifications, the true value of Parks and Rec was not the writing, acting, or receiving; but the moments when policies driven feverishly by the incomparable Leslie Knope won. It gave all of us who work in public policy hope that one day we too would become Knopes in our own department, rather than nopes who saw far too many of their good ideas skewered and left to bleed out on a conference room floor. Of course the comedy in P&R came when those glorious policies failed, either at the hand of a public forum or in implementation as everything backfired. We've all been there Knope.

This is the first installation in a series of posts I am doing to help me with preparing for my weekly MPA class in program evaluation. You will get a policy-backed explanation of the Parks Department's best and worst ideas from someone with two degrees in environmental policy and I will get to binge watch my favorite show of all time and call it studying? Win. Win. Win. And off we go.

The first policy I will be tackling is the Pawnee River cleanup. Program evaluation is a five-step cycle which includes program evaluation, problem definition, policy formulation, policy adoption, and policy implementation. I'll bullet these steps to make the identification easier. 

Problem definition: the Pawnee River needs to be cleaned up
Policy formulation: workers will be hired using grant funding to clean up the river
Policy adoption: once we get the grant money, a bill will be written to begin cleanup
Policy implementation: the cleanup of the river will begin
Program evaluation: temporal analysis of river cleanliness

That's it in a nutshell. Unfortunately I have five more pages of notes so we're about to do some digging, Pawnee-style. 

There are common components in the evaluation process that loosely determine the impact and validity of a program. They are listed below in the scope of the river cleanup:

Theoretical foundation: the theoretical underpinning is the river is dirty and we need to clean it up
Operationalization: the main indicator of this program's impact is the cleanliness of the river
Measurement: sample data will be collected to gauge water quality and aesthetic value will be measured by sporadic sweeps of the river bank
Impact analysis: public feedback, recreational use, and wildlife vitality will be the principle measures of impact
Policy judgement: If the indicators reach a certain level then the program is worth maintaining

Evaluation is considered the “systematic assessment of the operation and/or the outcomes of a program or policy, compared to a set of explicit or implicit standards, as a means of contributing to the improvement of the program or policy.” With this, there are key elements that help to define policies and programs: systematic assessment, focuses on processes and outcomes, standards for comparison, and the practical purpose of a program. 

For the river cleanup these elements are easy to define. A systematic assessment would be both quantitative (water quality data) and qualitative (aesthetic appeal). The focus on the process and outcomes would be related to how the river was cleaned up and the end result based on data. A standard for comparison would be an equally polluted river funded by federal grant money and the purpose would be obvious.

Focusing on these evaluation efforts, we can begin to discuss the outcomes of the river cleanup based on cause-and-effect questions, descriptive questions, process question, and normative questions, or the questions based on an ideal level of river pollution. 

Evaluation is different than basic research. For instance, a basic research question would seek to understand the level of pollution in the river before and after. A policy evaluation must measure many more things, including utility, program-derived questions, judgmental quality, action settings after the program is complete, role conflicts, publication intent, and allegiance. 

There are also boilerplate questions to consider when implementing a program. Before she hatched the plan to cleanup Pawnee River, these may have been the questions floating around in Leslie Knope's mind:

What are the stakes of the program? A healthier river for all and a quality of life improvement for the citizens of Pawnee.
Does the program impact a large number of people? It will, seeing as the river comprises a large area in Pawnee.
Is the program innovative? Not necessarily, but the river has been neglected and is thus polluted.
Can the program be replicated in other settings? Absolutely.
Has the program been evaluated before? Most likely, but given the town's history not in Pawnee.
Can the results of the program evaluation be used to inform the policy process? Yes.
Is the program strategically relevant? Yes.

So here is the crux of the program evaluation process: the logic model. A logic model is a description of how a program will achieve its intended result. This step is critical in visualizing the ideal outcome for a program and any pitfalls which may await it. The logic model is a three-step process:

1. Implementation - What are the inputs, outputs, and activities in the program? The input into the program will be a federal riverbed preservation grant which will help volunteers and staff clean up the Pawnee River. The major output of the program will be lower levels of pollution in the river and an increased sense of civic pride. Activities will be related to the grant writing and cleaning processes.
2. Results - What are the outcomes and final outcomes of the program? A cleaner Pawnee River and the precedent to keep it that way.
3. Assumptions and Risks - The major assumption Leslie had was the receipt of federal funds to help her clean the river up. She also took the risk that, in the middle of her turbulent tenure as city councilor, her constituency would supper her cleanup efforts.

I'll spare you the actual logic model, but you can see how it works.

After developing a logic model, the next step a trained civil servant like Leslie would have done would be to have developed hypotheses (if-then statements) about the model. Questions like "if we receive federal funding, the cleanup will be finished six months ahead of schedule" and "if we use activated charcoal, then the amount of x pollutant will be reduced." Things like that. The main thing we are looking for in a program is causal inference, or the impact that a program (P), has on an interest (Y). Essentially, if P can be shown to have a positive relation to Y then the program was worth implementing (O = (Y|P = 1) - (Y|P = 0)). This is shown hilariously in such cases as Leslie's bailout of the Pawnee Video Dome (funding (P) brought the Video Dome (Y) out of bankruptcy (positive relationship) but led it to become an adult video store and backlash from Ron and some citizens) and the implementation of a soda tax in Pawnee (the tax (P) led to lower levels of obesity and diabetes (Y) but (unintended consequence alert!) led to public backlash and her eventual recall). Policymakers like Leslie must weigh the hope for a positive causal inference against counterfactual evidence, or what would have happened if a program was never implemented. In the case of the Video Dome, the store would have gone bankrupt, an easy counterfactual. But in the case of the soda tax, would levels of obesity and diabetes have gone down without the tax? It seems obvious, but policymakers can never take outcomes for granted or assume based on past data.

So now we arrive at the end of our first lesson on how to Leslie Knope program evaluations: measuring the impact of a program. There are 5 measures that can be used when evaluating a program: program outcomes, unintended consequences, interim measures of progress, program processes, and program inputs. As a program, cleaning up the Pawnee River is an easy measure. The inputs and processes are defined and interim measures can be analyzed very easily as well.

In public policy today there is a push toward a results- and/or outcomes-based accountability for policymakers who are feeling the heat from their constituency, a 24-hour media cycle, and budget constraints. If you have ever witnessed a public forum in an episode of Parks and Rec, it is simply easier to articulate concrete outcomes to a frothing mass than to micromanage small deadlines and have to explain each and every one. Policymakers must be able to be transparent, sound honest, and reach a mutually-agreed upon bottom line within the collective attention span of militant action groups, overly concerned citizens, and people who showed up just to pick a fight. Rarely if ever does a policymaker accomplish this, but just as Leslie is the definition of the uber-bureaucrat we strive to be, the ideal forum is out there.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Being Leslie Knope: Policymaking From Pawnee to Program Evaluation 1001.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

I Know What It Means: Katrina Plus Ten

Dear New Orleans,

I never wrote a eulogy.

Even as reports of flooding broadcast over the airwaves, I never stopped believing. Even as the stories from refugees arriving to Nicholls from the Superdome filled my eyes with tears and my heart with sadness, not once. I was a New Orleanian. I was gonna stay a New Orleanian, even as the hell and high water settled into my hometown.

We didn't know the why, who, what, or when; but we knew the where. New Orleans.

And we doesn't refer to pre-Katrina. It refers to pre-everything. It takes a crazy person to build a city on so tenuous a strip of land, between two mighty bodies of water which harken life and death, promise and poverty. So we live out Bienville's memory in the best way we can: party until the laws of man or nature stop us. New Orleans has always been a capital: capital of trade, capital of sugar, capital of sin, and capital pain in the ass to everyone who has ever flown a flag above it. Hell, we were even the capital of Louisiana for a stretch until they took that away from us and gave it to a sibling city up north (I hear she's nothing more than a stick in the mud). These days we'd like to be remembered as one more capital: the capital of rebirth. And through sallow, swollen eyes we tell you this.

Rebuilding wasn't always a walk in Audubon Park like the news outlets will tell you this week. A populous christened for celebration was faced with the most daunting urban recovery project since 9/11. Where many thought we would fail we didn't. Where many thought we would quit we ascended. And that was just in the Superdome. When you love something enough to call it home, no challenge is too big to succeed. Rhythmic sledgehammers knocking away moldy drywall turned to staccato hammers building new houses, the spirit of which became a second line on Mardi Gras Day. The journey of rebirth became a celebration in and of itself, a local knowledge passed down a sacred bloodline shared by all New Orleanians from the time of Bienville. We just had to experience it anew, alas in the most dire of conditions.

And even in the midst of the celebration, there are those we left behind. Those still struggling with the reality of a storm which severed an already gossamer existence, ethereal even more so than the dead whose monuments they must live near in a cruel juxtaposition of circumstance. Those which the politicians and revelers only see as a number, a metric on a dreary report. These are the ones we must remember. These are the ones we must not forget.

We are a new city. When Katrina went right, many went left: to Baton Rouge, Houston, Atlanta, and many other places where Katrina means a Fleur-de-Lis on the porch and a walk to the local sports bar to see the Saints. To those places, we say thank you. Perhaps the biggest outpouring of charity was not from those who came to New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm but those who cared for the broken hearts who had nowhere else to go. You selflessly opened your homes to us when we did not know where Home really was anymore. When we returned Home we returned with hearts mended by colors of all hue, mine personally cardinal and silver. And in true New Orleanian fashion, we worked feverishly in our rebuilding with one eye toward personally inviting you onto our porch one day and returning the favor of unexpected charity with a bowl of gumbo and long conversation as excerpts from Louis Armstrong swirled the summer air into something magical.

We are a strong city. We even surprised ourselves. Well, not more than Drew Brees and the rest of the 2009 Saints. When we had no legs to stand on, they lifted us up. Out of our seats. Out of the Superdome. All the way to Miami. There is no hyperbole when I say I cried tears of joy until I was physically sick after Garrett Hartley sent us to the Super Bowl. Laughing and crying and heaving until I was on the floor. It was the best moment of my life. Sport is inconsequential in the grand scheme of life until it becomes a catalyst for civic change. In those rare moments when it transcends competition, sport has the ability to make anything possible and one night in February when I danced on the roof of a car high-fiving strangers is proof of that. A city scorned and left for dead in 2005 ruled the world for one night in 2010, and we've never been the same since.

We are a reverent city. Even beyond the cathedral, we respect our culture and the mores which made it so. Comus doesn't parade anymore (for all the wrong reasons), but still participate in the biggest tradition of Mardi Gras. Disney made a movie about us which turned into people asking me if singing alligators exist where I live (they do, you just have to be really close to hear them sing). The dreaded g-word is tearing apart the fabric of our dear city. It seems as if the real threat of Katrina was not the water, but the attention. New Orleans finds herself a commodity. Authenticity can be bartered for, experiences paid. But the real locals, from the ones born and bred here to the transplants who fell in love and stayed, know that the authenticity of the real New Orleans experience takes no effort. If you're trying too hard, you might just want to try not trying at all.

Which isn't to say we don't try. Lord knows the last ten years has been a trying time. We have our problems and we have our flaws, but when the music is right and the food is good, you just can't help yourself. Maybe that's our ultimate hamartia: we'll never advance past a hot trumpet and a plate of red beans. But why would you want to? The world needs a place to relax. And when we empty the pot and the trumpet cools, we'll get back to work. Just like we have for the last three hundred years. And just like we will for the next three hundred.

Thank you for raising me a New Orleanian. Thank you for feeding me like a New Orleanian. And thank you for blessing my life with the most beautiful gift of all: your soul.



Saturday, August 1, 2015

How To Fail Successfully

"Failure is not an option."

Ever since I heard those words uttered in the film Apollo 13 I took a solemn vow to make the enormity of that phrase my life's work. 

I was five years old, mind you. 

But even for a child the meaning was clear and Gene Kranz (portrayed superbly by Ed Harris) pulled no punches in his delivery. There were three astronauts in a capsule over 200,000 miles away from home. A capsule which was mortally wounded and bleeding oxygen, the one thing necessary to sustain life in the vacuum which surrounded them. The engineers and scientists at NASA has less than a week to bring them home. Alive. No American had ever died during spaceflight and Kranz was not about to let it happen on his watch. Heady stuff for a five year old I know, but I absorbed it all and went gung ho into the world, ready to never fail in my life. Thirteen years later, that quote graced the Class of 2007's yearbook as my senior quote. That was a point of contention for me. There were other, more angsty quotes ready to go but I finally decided that that principle was the one which guided me to where I was and who I was and thus that settled the deal. I have no signatures in my yearbook, in case you were wondering. 

The truth is, of course, that failure is inevitable and it is necessary in order to grow. Five year old Paul didn't see that due to childish naivete and eighteen year old Paul also missed the crux of the meaning because he was too busy thinking he was the be all and end all of Creation. Luckily, twenty-six year old Paul finally figured this out after some painful first-hand experiences in falling flat on his face. The truth is, the crux of Kranz's quote is in what he doesn't say. 

NASA certainly isn't a perfect organization. The famous "normalization of deviance" pattern coined to describe the agency after the loss of Challenger has cost NASA seventeen astronauts to date. In each case these systemic, catastrophic patterns of failures led to a moment much like Kranz's; only the momentum of bureaucracy, pressure down the command chain, and a preventable malfunction ended in tragedy for the agency, country, and astronaut corps. NASA is haunted by "what-if" moments: the pure oxygen atmosphere of Apollo 1, the O-ring and weather conditions for Challenger, and the leading edge wing testing for Columbia. The background knowledge built through decades of close calls and process failures should have been enough for failure to not be an option and a proactive, life-saving decision to be made, but none was made at all and tragedy resulted. Failure, especially in the beginning, is acceptable. Not learning from failure is fatal. 

Which brings us back to Kranz. At his moment with lives in the balance, he called upon every background resource he had available to him. Every flight test, on-orbit maneuver, and diagram of the Apollo capsule was used to help the crew. The most valuable information gathered was when the capsule and lunar module were pushed to their operational limits. He let his team devise ingenious solutions to the problems which plagued the astronauts all while he maintained a calm yet commanding presence over the mission control center. Kranz and his team understood the problem, traced past failures, and used the knowledge accrued to bring the wounded Odyssey and Aquarius back home with three lives to spare. That's how you fail: normally at first then nominally when it counts. 

If there's a takeaway to my ramblings, it's this: be encouraged to push your limits and mess up. It's the only way you will discover what you are truly capable of, and when this is accomplished take note of your shortcomings and find a team who will complement you and cover all the bases. Do not be afraid to fail, just do not make it a pattern. 

Res gestae per excellentiam. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

But things don't always come that easy, and sometimes I would doubt...

Every school year, at the beginning of the year, there would always be one assignment that stuck out like a sore thumb because every teacher assigned it. As far back as I can remember I would have to write about what I did on my summer vacation. Now (teachers pay very special attention to this part) summer to a child is an organic, free-flowing experience. Every day is a new adventure and every forgettable moment is a fleeting reminder of how much time we stood to lose between sunset and school pictures. So excuse me if I count these essays as the worst in my academic career. They were loose and disorganized, the product of having to sum up three months of freedom into a miniscule two pages. There wasn't enough paper in the world (or sometimes, too much paper if you couldn't remember anything) to chronicle the magic of long days and vacations to faraway places and when the pencil dropped the memories stopped, locked into a box and tucked away under your desk until the weather got hot, Oakdale baseball started, and Field Day (oh, joyous Field Day!) approached. 

My 21st summer leaves me with no shortage of things to write about. The primary reason for this is because I never really experienced a summer quite like this one. But I can't say everything was bad. In fact, I count these months as the most pivotal in my life. But on with the story, right?

It all started in April. I was due to become a freshly minted member of the Class of 2011. My cap and gown were in, the invitations were ordered, and I was ready to segue into the great unknown of the working world; something that I had been told about my entire life but was ready to experience for myself. But then, it happened. 

I failed. 

Bit the dust. Screwed the pooch. Bottomed out. Whatever the euphemism was I hit it right on the head. I got cocky, didn't study, and it led to my life being put on hold for two months. I was embarrassed, shocked, angry, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had let everyone down. Honestly, outside of the death of family members, it was the toughest thing I've ever had to endure: deflecting the questions about why I wasn't graduating, looking at the faces of all my friends and classmates come graduation time, even seeing the billboards congratulating the Class of 2011. For those few weeks in May the world seemed to rub salt in every wound before I lick them. The thing I had relied on for sixteen years, my academic talents, had dissolved in a pile of hubris and complacency. Without that, I had nothing. Or did I?

This is a strange thing to admit but I seem to have a theme song for everything: gameday, wedding days, even church days. I use music to compartmentalize my life because it seems easier when you have a mood that can be enhanced by the perfect song. So when I walked into my summer class the song I had on my iPod was the only one I could think of on the walk into campus. "Mean" by Taylor Swift. You see, people had allied themselves to me because I was the "smart" one, the one that always had the answers. Well, it just so happened that I didn't have the answer as to why I never walked across the stage on May 20th. And those people who had hung around to see the rise of the great academician fled my falling star faster and more swiftly than I saw the star burn out. I was legitimately mad: at myself for allowing this to happen, at the deserters in my camp, and at the damned teacher who wouldn't pass me. I was going to kick this class in the ass, get my diploma, and vanish into the purple and gold sunset. No prisoners. And everyone who every doubted me would get the mean treatment. If you ever thought I never had a mean bone in my body all this may come as a surprise but let me be the first to say, if I'm mad there's a reason. And you never want to see me angry. 

So in between kicking this class' ass (I like saying that) and nearly spontaneously combusting every damn day I found the path to redemption involves a little laughter and humility too. The best form of those qualities came at summer camp. Though I was only there for two days I was glad to take a little break from the daily grind of school and work. It was a great time and I learned something all parents know: no matter how many degrees you have children will always find a way to humble you. I already knew this from Sunday school yet somehow it rang truer this June. After camp and for the first time in a long time I didn't feel all the external pressures I normally felt. I was myself again, wholly. It didn't matter what other people thought of me or how I carried the impossibly high expectations of being in an Indian family. I was happy being at camp and being a role model by the being the funniest (if I do say so myself) and best person I could be. Grades didn't matter. I was the microcosm of Lemonade Mouth, another rallying cry for my summer, and only I was going to Determinate my future. 

So here I am. July has been a nondescript month (with the exception of today, of course) and the only thing I feel now is the worn weariness of surviving summer and a twinge of anticipation to August. I'm happy now, having realigned my life by focusing on what is really important to me. The bitterness of failure is almost gone but the reminder that lingers only serves to keep me motivated in what I'm doing. I'm a simpler, better person all because I let myself approach this summer with an open mind and no-holds-barred attitude. And the story of my summer can be expressed through the words of (oddly enough) Conan O'Brien, whose commencement address at Dartmouth struck the perfect chord with me: 

"It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention."

That's the long story of my summer. I will graduate on August 5th and this narrative might as well be tossed to the wind. There have been some amazing things that have impacted me in these two months but nothing more poignant than the launch and landing of STS-135, the final space shuttle flight. Ever since I was a little boy I dreamed of being an astronaut and the failure of that goal (though however unforeseen) has led me here to this moment. To the realization of the person I want to be for the rest of my life.

Of course, you could've just asked me for the short version of my summer: 

I didn't want to graduate college until the Space Shuttle was retired. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

And we know of your anguish. We share it.

One of the most studied organizations in the world is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA as it is known colloquially. Because of NASA’s unique mission as an agency, spaceflight, it is an organization that must deal with excessive risk-taking and the gravest of consequences whilst toeing the line of government bureaucracy and red tape. These two polar opposites have a pull on the agency that few other organizations in the world experience and as such the agency is an interesting case study on organizational learning, especially in the wake of major malfunctions that led to the loss of two space shuttle crews in-flight.
NASA has experienced two in-flight malfunctions which have led to the loss of a crew: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Challenger was lost in flight on January 28, 1986 during launch when a rubber O-ring on the solid rocket booster failed and caused ignited propellant to breach the hull of the shuttle’s external fuel tank, causing an explosion and breakup of the orbiter. The temperature at launch was unseasonably cold for the launch site at Cape Kennedy, Florida and the manufacturer of the O-ring had repeatedly warned NASA engineers of the risk of the rubber freezing and possibly generating propellant “blowback” during ignition. The explosion killed all seven astronauts onboard Challenger and halted the Space Shuttle program for two years while an investigation was conducted by a Presidential panel chaired by former Secretary of State Williams Rogers, or the Rogers Commission as the panel is known colloquially. The Rogers Commission determined a historical culture of complacency in contingency planning combined with pressure from various sources outside of the agency on the shuttle’s launch schedule led to the ultimately fatal circumstances of Challenger’s launch.
Before the loss of Challenger, NASA had never lost a crew in-flight and only suffered one other fatal accident to a spacecraft, the loss of Apollo 1 in a ground fire in 1967 that killed three astronauts. A similar panel was convened then and warned NASA of the same hamartia the Rogers Commission reiterated nineteen years later, one summarized by Dr. Diane Vaughn’s iconic phrase in a paper examining NASA after Challenger: normalization of deviance. In short, organizational learning is hindered by the capacity of an organization to rationalize deviant behavior to the end that the culture that pervades does not consider the behavior deviant. In NASA’s case, Apollo 1 was a result of moving too quickly in an attempt to defeat the Soviet Union in the Space Race. Shortcuts learned in earlier spaceflight programs were used to design the Apollo capsule and the safety culture devolved as the collective pressure began to build on the agency to deliver a man to the moon before the Soviets.
Flash-forward to 1986, where normalization of deviance reared its ugly head again as NASA attempted to launch spacecraft at a record pace. The safety culture, now comfortably removed from Project Apollo and fifty launches into the shuttle program, accepted the O-ring risk as nominal and green-lighted the launch. In many organizations a near-fatal accident is enough to permanently change the learning culture of a firm interminably much less the death of three crew members. However, with death so close to each crew on launch, orbit, and reentry; NASA seemed to have forgotten how scarring that scene was amidst the successes of landing ten men on the moon with a much-improved Apollo capsule and fifty successful shuttle launches. While this is not a common situation for organizations to encounter, when the stakes are highest the collective knowledge obtained by an organization should include the necessary precautions to prevent fatalities at the highest level. Unfortunately for NASA the cycle of deviance continued and seventeen years after Challenger impacted the Atlantic Ocean in pieces, Columbia’s loss reminded NASA of the cost of forgetting failure.
Space Shuttle Columbia suffered irrecoverable damage to her left wing during liftoff of the STS-107 mission. A piece of foam from the left strut of the external fuel tank that separates the orbiter from the tank broke off and punctured a hole in the heat shield on the left leading wing of Columbia. During the orbiter’s sixteen days in orbit the wing was not checked for damage and on February 1, 2003 Columbia began descent into the Earth’s atmosphere for reentry and landing. During reentry a blanket of ionized air surrounding the orbiter due to friction from the entry velocity of the spacecraft and temperatures can reach in upwards of 3,000 degrees. To prevent vehicle disintegration a heat shield made up of carbon heat tiles and thermal blankets surrounds the orbiter’s critical components and absorbs the heat generated by reentry.
The aforementioned puncture in Columbia’s heat shield proved fatal to vehicle and crew as temperature sensors in the orbiter’s left wing detected a sudden heat spike and were shut down around 200,000 feet before landing. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) theorized that a flow of superheated plasma entered through the puncture in the left wing, overloaded temperature and pressure sensors in the wing and wheel wells, and then melted the aluminum assembly of the wing. With the wing assembly melted, a complete structural failure of the shuttle was imminent. Columbia began to disintegrate and was separated from the left wing outward. The crew was most likely killed by asphyxiation due to loss of life support systems or trauma incurred when the crew cabin separated from the orbiter and exposed the crew to lethal G-forces. Vehicle breakup occurred across a swath of the Southwest United States stretching from Arizona to Louisiana. Within minutes of Columbia missing her landing time at the Kennedy Space Center NASA activated the Space Shuttle Contingency Action Plan (CAP), a plan developed after the loss of Challenger that deals with the loss of an orbiter.
Much like the aftermath of the Challenger accident, a board was convened to determine the cause of vehicle loss and illustrate the failures in organizational learning that led to the mishap. Instead of a Presidential panel, the CAP allowed for the NASA Administrator to appoint a chairman of the accident investigation panel. Admiral Hal Gehman chaired what came to be known as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, or CAIB. In a report eerily reminiscent of the Rogers Commission report seventeen years prior, CAIB highlighted the normalization of deviance which had become commonplace at NASA after a return to nominal operation. In the case of Columbia, the deadly deviance was not a frozen O-ring but rather the shedding of external tank foam that was observed on every shuttle launch. Every orbiter before Columbia had launched and returned safely with no damage suffered on ascent thus chalking the potential damage up to an acceptable risk as the elimination of foam would require a complete redesign of the external fuel tank, a project that would delay the shuttle program years and cost taxpayers millions of dollars and NASA millions more in lost payloads. NASA simply did not see the potential damage to the orbiter as enough of a risk to justify a complete shutdown to the shuttle program. In the end this normalization of deviance indeed cost NASA millions of dollars and a halt to the shuttle program, but also the irreparable loss of seven astronauts. The report also decried once again the safety culture at NASA, stating that despite lessons learned from Challenger, many personnel did not speak out on safety matters, as stopping a program with so much financial capital could signal the end of a career. CAIB concluded the organizational culture at NASA, further atrophied by the decentralization of leadership and competing interests across multiple states, was unacceptable and once again required an overhaul of the organization of the agency including the creation of a separate safety office which reports directly to an administrator who holds the ability to bring all projects to a halt in the name of safety.

With an otherwise stellar safety record in manned spaceflight NASA is a dynamic agency which learns by necessity. Every trip into orbit is a new chance to solve the universe’s undiscovered mysteries. However, in a massive stroke of irony, an organization that lends its very mission to learning about spaceflight is not very good at learning about itself. NASA has practiced an organizational philosophy that believes it is better to fix problems after a mishap than identifying them beforehand and working to correct any problems before an accident occurs; a pattern of deviant behavior that was born out of a breakneck effort to defeat the Soviets. Coupled with the massive pressure on NASA from the public and federal government at large, first politically due to the Cold War then fiscally due to the enormous cost of maintaining a fleet of orbiters many Americans see as no more complex than a U-Haul van, cracks in the proverbial heat shield of organizational learning have led to catastrophe in the past and if not corrected fully, will prove to be just as fatal as the agency looks to the International Space Station, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

But the stranger ways of earth know our pride and know our worth...

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone;
He's a man who won't fit in.

- Robert W. Service, "The Men That Don't Fit In"

Let's talk failure.

As the Seattle Seahawks found out on Sunday, it's not that easy. One playcall by coach Pete Carroll led to a heartbreaking interception which literally robbed the team of the one thing they had competed for all year: back-to-back Super Bowl championships. In a split-second their season was over and suddenly 362 days of celebration until Super Bowl 50 became three hundred and sixty-two days of second-guessing by the media, fans, coaches, and most importantly themselves.

How do you respond from such a crushing blow? How do you handle the "after?" It's easy when you're the champion. But for every fairy tale to come true, someone's heart must be broken. Failure is a basic tenant of life and something we all will experience. Here's how to handle it and become a stronger, more confident team leaving the locker room when the next season begins.

After the Super Bowl defeat Coach Carroll was surprisingly straightforward and frank in his explanation of the final playcall and how the Seahawks handled the defeat. In an interview with 710 AM Seattle he stated that the final outcome doesn't define you. Rather, it's how you step forward and embrace the after. Things are going to suck for a while after you lose, no matter what the stakes. The innate feeling of letting yourself and your teammates down is a painful, grating, all-too-familiar mask you must wear as the confetti colors of the other team falls around you. But the old adage that time heals all wounds is also very true. Each day will feel better and every time you lace it up after losing will give you the confidence to be better than before. Maybe it'll be fueled by competition. Maybe it'll be fueled by anger. But the more you practice, the more focused you'll be to perform at higher level. Don't be reticent. Be honest with yourself and your failure. The less time it takes to come to grips with losing, the more time you'll have to prove yourself for the next challenge.

Speaking of that next challenge, it's always going to be there. The Seahawks routed the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, and Coach Carroll was lambasted in the media the morning after for saying they'll take the Super Bowl win "in stride." What a difference a year makes. The natural human instinct is to celebrate victories and flush losses, but what if we were to flip that? Flush the victories, they already proved what you know (you're awesome!) Celebrate the failures. No more are you out of your comfort zone than when you fail, and those moments are the greatest opportunities to learn. Stripping your emotions to a visceral level and confronting your faults with no pretense allow fundamental changes to your process to be made and kept. Stagnation after a failure leads to more failure and a propensity to blame everyone but the most important person in the process: yourself.

In the formative years of Hyundai, the car company was a tiny manufacturer with little experience in building cars on an assembly line or knowledge of engineering processes. An ambitious plan set forth by the company called for a massive knowledge base to be accrued and independence from foreign car manufacturers to be accomplished. Hyundai engineers were sent to the four corners of the world to learn how to build a car from the ground up, and the company's first assembly plant was built in six months with workers who worked sixteen hour shifts, seven days a week. This obsessive pursuit was a practice that led to a high-knowledge, high-effort culture which has turned Hyundai into one of the most successful car companies in the world. Over the years, Hyundai evolved from an expansion team with highly motivated rookies to a division championship roster with a blend of savvy veterans and motivated players to a Super Bowl champion who were able to sign talented free agents, scout and develop talented rookies, and demand the best out of the entire organization while managing egos and keeping the basic fundamental knowledge known and strong throughout the entire company. Even in times of crisis, Hyundai stuck to their philosophy and focused the craft of perfection inwards and in the end it paid massive dividends. Knowing that failure is inevitable, even to those highly motivated enough to pursue perfection in their craft, is the best way to turn a momentary setback into a learning opportunity and reach even higher.

Super Bowl-caliber people understand what it is to fail and how to step forward after losing. The Seahawks will have the necessary time to recoup their losses and get back on the practice field, and you will too. Being one yard away from a Super Bowl or failing a math test are one in the same and the steps to getting better are the same too: be honest to yourself, make fundamental changes to what went wrong, and never shy away from your core philosophies. The recovery process is exactly that but the sooner you realize the sun is shining and the next Super Bowl is only a year away, the sooner you'll be having a blast getting focused to compete again.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Per ardua ad astra

A little kid looked at the heavens once and decided he should be there. So, with starstruck eyes and moondust in his soul he dreamt every night of golden wings and fifty miles altitude. With encouragement and dedication from his teachers and parents, he began to see his world through the eyes of those too brave to limit themselves to Earth. Convinced he would be among them, he began planning stops on his tour to the cosmos: Houston, Cape Kennedy, ISS. 

A teenager saw his dreams torn apart over a bluebird Texas sky. Too young for Challenger, he watched in shock as the proudest of orbiters settled into atoms on her way back to Kennedy and a nation began to mourn for those seven souls too brave, anew. Scrubbed of childhood wonder, the business of flight was scary, unnerving, and for the moment, grounded. Amidst the pangs of a country demanding answers, the teenager saw his dream seemingly shelved. Yet, when the doubts crept in, he stubbornly held onto the one thing he had all along: that childhood wonder. 

A young adult watched his dream re-ignite under the SRBs of STS-135 and liftoff once more on the shoulders of the Atlantis. Everything was right with the world again as four of those too brave souls ended an era of which he had grown up with. The culmination of his college career and STS were almost simultaneous, leaving a contented country and one enthused young adult with only one question: what next? There was no limit: the moon, Mars, and beyond. As a new decade dawned, that childhood wonder has served this young adult well, leading him to explore and become a citizen of faith and science. But one singular goal remains, and until that goal is achieved there will be no nights without dreams of golden wings and souls too brave. 

What kept my dream of spaceflight alive through all these years has been my passion to explore. But even more so the efforts and sacrifices of the astronauts who I have watched fly into orbit, make the superhuman seem routine, and return to lead America into her new future. I never looked up to the heroes of culture as a child. The Mercury 7 and TFNGs were the posters on my wall. There may be a day I join them, and it will make all this dreaming a beautiful prelude. Until then, and especially today, I will work to honor the memories of those lost too soon in the ultimate act of service to Mankind.