NASA’s Science Head on Leading Space Missions with Risk of Spectacular Failure

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

A year ago, the U.S. space agency NASA launched a spacecraft the size of a vending machine toward a pair of asteroids, one orbiting the other, more than 11 million kilometers away. The target? The smaller of the two asteroids, just 170 meters wide. The spacecraft slammed into the asteroid so fast, it covered the last 10 kilometers in about a second.

It’s really hard to come up with a down-to-earth comparison. It’s a little like hitting billiard shot from one side of a continent to the other and draining it. Not only did this spacecraft successfully slow the orbit of the asteroid, which was what it was being tested to do – it also brought along its own film crew for posterity. A tiny spacecraft, made by the Italian space agency, followed three minutes behind the spacecraft, taking pictures of the smash.

If you want to talk about complexity, highly technical, risky… Well, this is a project for you. A $300 million dollar one that took seven years to plan and launch, coordinating scientists and expert teams around the globe.

How do you execute a project like that? Or the James Webb Space Telescope that’s now beaming extremely high resolutions photographs of space back to Earth?

Here to tell us how is Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of science at NASA. He oversees a $7.6 billion dollar budget for space science missions, as well as more than one billion dollars for earth science missions, like the ones making climate observations of Earth. Hi Thomas.

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: Good to talk to you.

CURT NICKISCH: Thomas you were born in Switzerland. Your father was a prominent pastor in a religious community there. How did you get started on your path to where you are now?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: Yeah, exactly right. So it is kind of, I think the easiest way I would explain it, I basically grew up in an Amish light kind of version, so very isolated from the community as a whole. Really the only books I read as a child were either the Bible or things about the Bible. That’s how I grew up in a mountain village in Switzerland. Very isolated, limitations on what you can wear. I never had jeans, for example. My sisters always had dresses, no pants and so forth.

But what happened is we had the mandatory public school and that was my really entry into learning. The amazing work that happened in other places, actually volunteered to work at the library. And so I started reading entire sections of the library, both history and exploration, like the stories of explorers by boat or people who figured out how to build buildings in Italy or in other places, but then also science.

And I really fell in love with science overall. And eventually I went to the teacher and said, hey, I would really like to consider studying – the surprise was kind of there when the teacher said, oh, you may not be good enough. Because you’re in part from that village, that’s not what he said. But I had overheard them saying that look at their parents, they’re not really smart. So I did that. I did make it because of the support of other teachers into gymnasium which is really the step towards university. Then studied physics all the way to a PhD in astrophysics.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s an amazing story. What did you do after that?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: -I had a career for pretty much 25 years, 20 plus years. I would then want to say at the University of Michigan where I was a professor, really had a research group. I built some space instruments. By the way, I started that during my education in Switzerland already. So much of space is international and has been for many years. And then of course also ran innovation and entrepreneurship programs at Michigan and also did build educational programs focused on space and especially entrepreneurial space.

CURT NICKISCH: What attracted you about this role?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: I have always been very much excited about science. Just I think doing science is one of the most amazing things we can be doing as humans because we’re pushing that boundary of ignorance – things that separate what we know from what we don’t know.

To me, that’s just such an important part. Just that same excitement that I had reading these books in that library early on is the excitement that I still have. It’s figuring things out that nature is incredibly beautiful and it’s important. The second passion I have is really growing talent because at the end you always want people who come behind you to exceed what you do because that creates a better and better group and society. So really, I did all these things at the University of Michigan and I really felt that I stopped learning quite as much.

And I basically figured out what the characteristics were of the next job. And I started interviewing and at the end I had two job offers. One was an innovation leader at Amazon, the company, and the second one was the head of science at NASA. And so basically I went through the struggle of figuring out which one to take. I took the one that pays a lot less.

CURT NICKISCH: What’s your schedule in your role now? When we asked about scheduling this interview, you wrote us back saying we’re hitting an asteroid with a spacecraft on Monday and trying to launch a rocket on Tuesday. Later in the week might be better.

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: So the good news is we’re doing amazingly exciting things and almost every week there’s some highlight, whether it’s a launch, whether it’s a mission result, whether it’s frankly a challenge we have with a mission that requires my attention. Our goal is to develop these missions not to be successful only, but also so taxpayers can be proud of it.

I see time as the most precious good I have. I set clear boundaries around my time. For example, I don’t allow regular scheduling before eight o’clock in the morning. They need to ask for approval or after five o’clock. Of course do work beyond that, but I don’t want to be in a reactive mode entirely driven by schedule.

So in that schedule has to fit both the operational maintaining of these missions, the 50 or so we’re developing right now. But it also has to be focused on strategy and building the community, frankly, empowering and growing the team, but then also do the work I need to do, which is to drive towards decisions these missions and get them to launch and make them successful.

CURT NICKISCH: You recently wrote that you felt you had been too reactive as a leader recently. Can you tell us about that? Why is that a mistake?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: So what I noticed about myself is I really need to be busy to be at my best. I do best at the speed of a jogger. I sweat a little bit. I do best at that speed. I’m not rushing, I’m not sprinting. I could go forever at that speed, but it’s not just walking and looking left and right.

You have to be sure that the unknowns that are not part of the plan don’t put you into the sprinting range. All of a sudden what happens is things come your way and you cannot control the total workflow. You go into a mode in which you constantly cannot fend off problems that come to you.

Now you lose control. It’s almost like somebody is driving a car behind you and pushing you down the street. Now that’s really scary and it’s just really unhealthy and you don’t feel like you could have control because you feel if you don’t go that speed, something horrible happens, you get under the car.

I’ve noticed in my six years at NASA, there were two or three times where I got into that mode and I really had to reset. And what I thought was really important for me is to talk about that. Because I also see others who are at times at that mode, what you see as people barely keeping up what they’re doing, often that is because of lack of delegation.

If you have a hundred priorities, you have no priorities. And so for me, it really is making that a topic and also shedding work. What are the things that I’m not the best in the whole group or necessarily need to be able to do? And kind of stepping it to a place where I’m again proactive. I think forward. I see problems before they’re here and we can solve them when they’re little. They’re not tremendous big problems where all of a sudden we have to stop everything else and focus on it.

CURT NICKISCH: What’s different about this job from others you’ve had? You helped lead entrepreneurship programs. Here you’re helping to steer and run ventures with things that are doing something new that have never been done before, like entrepreneurs are sometimes trying to do. But you were working with scientists and you’re working with a lot of complexity. You’re working internationally. I’m just curious what that management is like.

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: There are two or three things that are really different. Let me tell you the things that are not different first though. I remember people always asking me is like, how can you handle government bureaucracies? I think you’re underestimating bureaucracies and universities. It’s also generally speaking, no matter where I’ve worked, I basically figured out that people really mean to do the right thing on the large. The majority of people, no matter where you work, they want to do the right, they want to have value. And so it’s just people. So it’s whether these people are elected officials, whether these people are frankly big political bosses, whether these people are technicians in a shop or my managers, they want to do the right thing. And then the question is, are they in the right job and can they be successful?

What’s different though, kind of the way NASA is set up, because we’re set up as an agency that takes risks all the time. The only way that agency can take risk is that somebody owns the risk. And so as a result of that, I own the risk. We are ready to go. It’s my signature that basically says the payload is ready. If it’s not going well, my job is at jeopardy, but the other jobs are not. And so as a result of that, my voice has more weight. So when I say we’re doing it, I can listen to everybody and I do. People in my job, if they’re not listening to their team, they’re just dumb.

So I listen to everybody, but at the end, it’s my decision. In previous jobs I’ve had, when the decision is made by the leader, the discussion starts. At NASA, when my decision is made, it’s over, it’s done. Decision making is something I have to be much more thoughtful about because the consequence of bad decisions is so much bigger, so that’s different.

The second one is the teams are much more complex. So I don’t only have my leadership team of the 400, 500 people who work at headquarters or the 6,000 to 10,000 individual researchers that are kind of on the payroll within NASA and contractors right there, but also in a given mission, two thirds of them have an international partners.

We have commercial partners. Some of them are venture-funded companies, some of them are companies that have been with us as long as the agency has been around. The Lockheed Martins, the Boeings. So basically what my job is very much recognizing that, by the way, one of the partners already mentioned are the elected officials. Some of them in the White House and some of them over in Capitol Hill. And they’re very much stakeholders in it. So it’s just a complexity. The size and complexity of the teams are often much, much larger. Those really are the two key characteristics that are separating them from other things I’ve done.

CURT NICKISCH: Let me ask you about taking responsibility so that teams can be really enterprising, can suggest kind of groundbreaking things. Why is that important?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: We could be building 20 missions within NASA. All of them work, and we could be failing at our job. What our job is not only to do the mission successfully but to push the envelope, to do new things, to create new opportunities both for the science community worldwide, but also for the industrial community around us, for us in the United States. And our taxpayers expect us to push the envelope. That’s why what we do basically in every mission, there are things we’ve never done, sometimes 300 of them, and that’s kind of scary. But usually the way I think about it, every mission has at least one miracle. I call them miracles, not because they’re some kind of wanders you cannot affect them, but something that needs to happen that looks impossible at first. So I’m not interested in missions that have no miracles, frankly.

That’s just not what we do, frankly. Every mission, when I came in as a leader in my position, I basically asked that every mission has at least one technology that is new so the missions that come behind it can take advantage of it. And so we’ve done that consistently, have changed our launch paradigm to enable that as well. And so basically when you do that though, what you cannot do at the same time is kind of tell people you can never fail.

So I spend a lot of time accepting failure. So basically telling people, look, we make mistakes around here and I want you to be comfortable doing that. And I want to give you the space. Now, I am not accepting stupid mistakes. You come drunk to work and you got into an accident. That is not the type of mistakes we’re talking about.

I’m talking about things that where we do the best job as best as we know and they still don’t work, somebody needs to say that’s okay. And it’s the person who if you want, I will testify to Congress and that’s me. And so for me, it’s really important that the team has the freedom of thought, the liberty to take those risks and move forward. Because see, it’s very easy to turn off innovation in your organization and that is the first person who is innovating and is trying really, really hard to do something new. And it doesn’t quite work. If you go after that person, so the person is dispirited, basically is punished for that. The good news is you’ll never get a person like that again who tells you that they have not quite been successful, but you also have turned off the innovative capability of your entire organization.

Hence it’s really important to create that space. And it’s also really important how you deal with this. I want to tell you, I’ve communicated a lot about failure. This morning alone before this interview, already had two phone calls of people telling me that they’re struggling. I encourage that phone call, frankly, whether it’s the CEO or the top VP of a company, I tell them, here’s my personal cell phone. You have a problem, I don’t want you to hide the problem. That what I do to you if you flag the problem is I will not overreact.

CURT NICKISCH: How do you guard against over optimism then, if you create a space where failure is okay and you’re looking for envelope, pushing ideas, that almost makes it easy for people to come up with pie in the sky ideas that aren’t realistic, maybe too optimistic, but there’s no danger in going too far?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: When it comes to innovation, constraints are your friend. Constraints could be you can innovate, but the maximum amount of money this can cost is a hundred million dollars. You’re $1 over, you’re out. So again, you can do, we can take risk, you can adjust the scope, you can adjust the schedule, you can adjust your team. I’ll let you do whatever. We even will reduce the paperwork that we do. We’ll do whatever. We’ll use the simplest version of oversight, but you cannot get a dollar over. And if you get over, I’m going to terminate you. And for me, that has to be clear at the beginning.

See, the problem with not doing that, setting constraints, is that a single experiment can impact many experiments next to it. So I always think of innovation is like a metal. On the one side of the metal it says, yes, do it, try, encourage. The other side of the metal is here’s the constraints, figure out what they are. They’re on the other side of the metal. They need to know here’s how we’re protecting the neighborhood from you. You cannot stink up the whole neighborhood. And of course you have to break some of these rules from time to time.

But when I came to NASA, I was also one of the first persons in a long time that has terminated missions, stopped them. For example, a mission that was over a factor two and a half over cost. I’m like, as a taxpayer, you would never agree to this. When somebody comes into your home and fixes a sink and they work there for a day, and then they say, well, I told you $200, and by the way, I already spent the $200, but it costs you another $300 now to finish the sink, you say get lost. Well, so for me, spending the taxpayers’ money, I see myself as an advocate for the taxpayer too. And therefore the constraints are really important.

CURT NICKISCH: You came to NASA with this web telescope project already underway, huge $10 billion project, and there was some problems with it that you encountered and had to write.

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: Yeah. I came in and the telescope at this moment, I had three parts. One was the operations, the second one was the telescope, and the third one was the spacecraft with its heat shield. And the telescope did really well, and everybody was clapping and tapping each other on the shoulder and really excited how the telescope was doing. All attention went there.

And I remember one month into my work, the first notice in my notebook where I started to ask about are we putting enough focus on the bus and the sun shield? And it turned out the answer was no with an exclamation mark. And it took me roughly a year to really prove that to myself. I noticed there that we were standing still for almost two years spending $1 million per day. And every day the launch date moved out by one day, which basically tells you we’re blowing money and we’re not making progress.

And of course I had to replace some people, but more importantly, we figured out that it was really a team-building issue. The way we figured that out is by doing an independent review, a non-advocate review by critics who really look at this and get full access. You need, frankly, I asked that review, should we complete that telescope? Do we have any chance?

And they came back and says, you have a chance. It’s really, really hard, but here are 32 things you need to do. And that’s really helpful as a leader, because I sat down and first I said, who’s in charge of that?

But then we basically looked at these 32 actions and we started fixing every one of them, retraining, replacing where we needed to replace some kind of parts of the system and build it back up. So independent reviews are also helpful to get inherent optimism or bad communication out of the system because what people want to do at the top level, the people I talk to just remember, there’s a million dollars we’re spending per day. Somebody says, that’s important for my company. And so there’s a bad incentive, but an incentive nonetheless for not telling you completely the truth during that discussion. And that’s why it’s important to break down the communication boundaries.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, that project turned out great. Everybody was just enthralled by the images that the telescope started coming out with. And it was one of the highlights I imagine of your tenure there. But you also had landing a rover on Mars, sending a drone around recording sound on Mars, sending sound back from a planet for the first time. Can you talk about some of those successes, maybe some of your favorites and how you can learn from successes and build from them?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: So first and foremost, that’s really when I mentioned that, of course, in every one of those successes, there’s a team that gave their best and they deserve a lot of credit. And if I didn’t put Webb – JWSD – on top of the list, that would be a mistake. It’s very hard to have eyes to look at the universe in a new way. And JWSD, the James Webb Space telescope is a telescope like that. And it is so, so, so hard, it’s just at the edge of what we can do. And so the fact that the team pulled it off the way it did after many crisis, I’m immensely proud of them. And this will change how we think about our universe. You will look at the night sky differently even five years from now because of that telescope.

Landing on Mars with perseverance, which aptly named perseverance. Actually funny, I chose that name roughly a month before Covid. We just talked about my story, so perseverance is why I’m here. And so I just really believe that perseverance, such a positive thing. And of course that by the way, when I started, was also in trouble. It looked like it was not going to go in 2020. And again, I had a lot of people telling me things that I wanted to hear or leaders want to hear, but were untrue. We were really in trouble. We needed to fix it.

And the helicopter I’m very proud of because that is an innovation that people wanted to do, but we did it the right way. The constraint there was cost. I basically gave them a cap and that protected them from overreach of bureaucracy in a way that would’ve otherwise killed them. It’s so successful now that actually for Mars sample return, which is where we’re going to pick up those samples in the late decade, we’re going to use drones like Ingenuity, like the helicopter on Mars as a reserve element to get those samples back, shoot the rover not make it to the late twenties.

So I just want to tell you, I’m proud of that. Parker Solar Probe at the fastest closest mission to the sun named for the first time after a person still alive, a Midwesterner who was over appreciated. He just died a few months ago. Knowing that everybody knew what he had done for space. Those are just three of the most successful missions out of the 38 that we launched since since I’ve been there.

CURT NICKISCH: Any effort that NASA puts together also involves a lot of coordination between different agencies and international agencies. It can be complex if you have stakeholders there in Washington, DC. You also have stakeholders in capitals in Europe and Asia and around the world. What have you learned from that experience?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: First and foremost, I treat every person that I’m interacting with, whether that person is in charge of a space agency internationally, whether it’s of a company, I treat them like a human being.

I try to immediately, as soon as I can, kind of move the relationship onto two layers. The first one is a professional one. I will always represent NASA, act in the best interest of the taxpayers, of the elected officials that I work for. But the second layer is one where I respect that they have to do the same and they have interest at me at times be contrary to the United States, but they will do their best as people. So for many of them, I know their families, I have met them, have done dinners at their home, they know mine. I have spent a lot of effort with, and not because I’m confused about the first goal, it’s to make sure that we’re not solving problems that we don’t need to solve.

It should never be the interpersonal problems, communication things. We have the right relationship if we have a problem and the person at the other side of the table says, “Thomas, this makes no sense to me the way you just said it. Could we go through this one more time?” So in other words, I get bad news from them if they don’t understand. That’s the level of trust we want. That means that we can solve problems efficiently and then we can do complicated things. We can rely on each other.

One story that I want to tell you quickly, we have a lander on Mars called InSight and was with the French Space Agency. And frankly they had before I came to NASA, missed the launch window. When I came to NASA, they were yellow again on time. So they were about to miss the second launch window.

And I basically said, I’m going to meet the French. So I got on the plane and it helps of course that I speak French, but I got on a plane and basically with a simple message. You have one chance. We’re going to be successful, but if you’re missing it, we’re not going to delay it. And frankly, many of the problems that they had with their own workforce with companies got solved with that trip. I told them, by the way, they need to deliver on the 14th of July the gift of that year, otherwise we’re not going to fly.

CURT NICKISCH: Bastille Day.

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: Exactly right. Before that day, they need to deliver because they’re all going on vacation. I don’t want a theoretical solution. I want an actual solution that’s culturally successful. In other words, I don’t want them to work through their vacation. Actually they missed it by one day. It got on the plane on the 15th because of a shipping thing, but I’m immensely proud of them.

So they delivered. We launched, I went back to France and went into the company and thanked them in French for their effort with the leaders there and really thanked them. And I met the amazing people who build it. So international relationship are relationships between people that we treat each other the right way, but we do it in the interest of our own governments and taxpayers.

CURT NICKISCH: You recently announced that you’re leaving this job in December. Why did you come to that decision and what do you hope your legacy on the organization will be?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: I’m a strong believer that leaders and big organizations, especially powerful leaders, should rotate out after so and so many years. When I came in, I told everybody I’m here five to seven years if they would want me. If you’re high enough in a government, you sometimes do not survive a president’s transition, and I worked for three presidents now.

CURT NICKISCH: You put a constraint on yourself essentially.

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: Absolutely, I did. But also gave them trust. I’m not here just to fake it. I’m going to be with the organization and I’m going to put my heart and soul into it. I was pretty convinced kind of something like a half a year ago, I kind of notice, first of all, I build a team that is really, really good. I don’t need to be in the room for many of the decisions that I used to drive. They’re innovative. They learned how to work with commercial partners. They’re positive, they’re building their own teams. We have a diverse leadership team.

And frankly, I noticed also that there’s a lot of repeats. There’s not a lot of firsts. So kind of my learning rate has slowed down. And because of that reason, and also because as a leader also have weaknesses. And remember, if we move the organization in the direction of your strength, the ratio of the impact of your strength and your weaknesses move in favor of the weaknesses over time.

And so because of that, also recognizing, hey, my less patient view has at times created problems now more so than it did before. So I just came to the conclusion and with the entire team, basically, hey, I’m going to leave next year. The question is when, and I’m leaving when it’s best for the team that we’ve identified.

CURT NICKISCH: And your legacy?

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: I hope that when people look at this time, they find two things. The first one is enormous successes that stand the test of history, basically, that they really mattered and they’re important. And the second one is that I was part of building a set of leaders and set of enablers of that industry that have a long-term impact, that much exceed the time that I was there.

CURT NICKISCH: Thomas, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about your experience there leading science efforts at NASA.

THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: I really appreciate the time.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Thomas Zurbuchen. He’s the head of science at NASA. For another episode on this topic, check out episode 684, Understanding the Space Economy.

And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, manage organizations, and manage your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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