Friday, October 07, 2005

NASA Website Analysis: A Different Perspective

Not surprisingly, one of the themes I noticed on NASA’s website was an emphasis on past and future success. Consequently, there were not explicit links to information regarding either the Challenger or Columbia disasters. I ended up using the “search” tool at the top of the site to find relevant information.

I found it interesting that there is a second-by-second break down of what happened to the Challenger, from takeoff to explosion. The “timeline” was in great detail and heavy in scientific terms; so much so that it was completely over my head. I could not help but wonder if this was somewhat purposeful. This way, NASA is explaining what went wrong with the shuttle to the public, but they are doing it in such a way that it is too complicated for the average person to understand, let alone contemplate. In relation to organizational communication, most messages sent regarding the Challenger incident were task-based. Although, to be fair, I must also include that there were press releases available on NASA’s website that were more geared towards remembering the fallen astronauts and their contributions to the space program.

Information on the Columbia disaster was more based on human messages. There is a lot of emphasis placed on remembering the crew. Their profiles and pictures are on the site, as well as several articles and press releases announcing memorials and dedications in their honor. I could not find information regarding what caused the crash and there was no timeline, as in the case with the Challenger disaster. This brought up questions such as: are they handling the investigation from a different perspective? Do they not know what caused the disaster? There seemed to be more of a focus on recovering the shuttle parts than analyzing the cause. One quotation found in an article commenting on the shuttle disaster really struck me as significant: “The IFPTE reported that a combination of budget cuts, workforce downsizing and contracting out key NASA operations negatively affected the safety of NASA’s manned space program, its ability to retain and pass along core technical knowledge, and its oversight of the contractor workforce.” There seems to be a theme that NASA’s failing culture is a result of long-term issues, all of which relate to communication between technical experts and management.

Lastly, NASA’s career websites make the organization seem like a happy family, using a lot of “we” terminology and referencing the famous Dr. Sally Ride. They appear to have an extensive and thorough orientation program, which begins online and continues with onsite training, briefings and management receptions. New employees are provided with an orientation “toolkit” and tips from employees on how to have a successful first day. They seek people who want to accomplish great things, but also realize the risks involved. For example, on the career website the hypothetical question “could we all fail?” was answered with a yes. However, everything is done in a positive manner, portraying NASA as the organization that can accomplish things that no one else can. Everything at NASA seems to be based on its four core values: safety, teamwork, integrity and mission success.