26 May Corporate Sustainability and The Fragility of Earth: Lessons Learned at NASA
One of the things I like most about my work as an advisor and speaker to organizations is getting to work with amazing places and having new experiences. One week I can be flying a 747 simulator at Qantas Airlines and the next week standing next to a blast furnace at a steel plant. This past week I spent two days at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center just outside of Washington DC as part of their Distinguished Speaker Series. As someone who grew up in the midst of the missions to land on the moon and who is fascinated with the biology of the Earth, getting to spend two days there was a real treat. I learned about everything from finding purpose in work to what it looks like to be devoted to corporate sustainability.
Impressions from Nasa
There were lots of impressions from my two days there but three stand out: 1) The power of purpose to drive commitment at work 2) The nobility of the human spirit 3) The fragile beauty of life on earth (and a renewed urgency to create more focus on corporate sustainability for our future).
Impression One: Purpose Matters
Arriving at NASA Goddard I began my journey in building number one (built in 1959). The 1,300-acre campus has 36 buildings all named with a number for the order in which they were built. Hardly creative but very easy—might just be a new way to name children. NASA has consistently been rated as the best agency to work for in the Federal government based on employee surveys and it was immediately obvious why. The people of NASA have a deep sense of mission and purpose about the work they do whether designing and building the new James Webb telescope which will be able to peer back 13.5 billion years into the origins of the universe—the magnetic satellite system that will measure Earth’s magnetic force—or their compelling work on what is happening to the Earth. Many people have worked there for forty years while younger workers often told me they grew up dreaming they would work for NASA. Most every person I met, regardless of role, swelled with pride. Although we can’t all work at NASA, it reminded me that no matter what kind of business we have, we need to help people see the deeper purpose in their work because when people have an important “why” it creates a unique bond between work and those who work. My first lesson was a reminder that purpose matters A LOT!
Impression Two: Humans Can Be Noble
The second lesson is that I was reminded of the nobility of humanity. The space race may have begun in part because of a cold war fear of being left behind by the Russians, but it has also always been driven by our basic nature which is why most people said “wow” when I said I was going to NASA. Today’s space program finds NASA cooperating with companies and space agencies around the globe to monitor weather, explore the universe, and find ways to adapt to a changing planet. At Goddard, there are satellite dishes that pick up emergency beacons sent to satellites around the globe which are then communicated to those who can help. Looking at images taken by NASA spacecraft and satellites, one could not help but be reminded that humanity at its very best is a curious, cooperative, creative species hungry to learn about this world and worlds beyond. We may not always act that way, but perhaps the late popular astronomer Carl Sagan was right, that if we can get through this period of turbulent adolescence our nobler instincts may truly soar.
Impression Three: The Need For Corporate Sustainability
Yet there is also a more humble emotion that aroused for me visiting NASA and I was reminded of the need for corporate responsibility. That was my third lesson. On the second day, my hosts opened up their Earth Sciences simulator for a one on one tour through many of the simulations they have made that model the workings of this planet. Surrounded with spellbinding images that combine satellite data, often over decades, we explored models showing the melting ice around the globe, images of pollution from China blowing off in the upper atmosphere, a colorful almost hypnotizing model of ocean currents and temperatures across the globe, the predictable puffs of clouds and moisture that occur almost every day above the Amazon and the barren stillness of the vast Sahara. These images brought to life, what I have long known intellectually. Earth is itself a living breathing organism—a system of interconnected biology, a veritable web of life sitting amidst a universe so unlike it. It all reminded of the need for corporate sustainability around the globe. One ocean scientist waxed philosophically to me about this one outpost of biological diversity while another casually commented about testing for a satellite to withstand the 375 degrees above zero when the Sun faces it and the 375 degrees below zero when not facing it away from the relative calm of our atmosphere, and a computer guy casually said “well we don’t really know what is happening with the Sun right now.” I expected NASA to wow me and they did. But as I watched mere humans slowly wheel a cart of parts hermetically sealed destined for a sophisticated new satellite through a 1960’s hallway followed by an extension cord, I was reminded that we are still at the mercy of forces much larger than ourselves. The satellites may tell us that the Earth is changing, but perhaps we should not be so arrogant that the forces of climate change or a change in the oceans salinity (or temperature) would be so easily fixed or adapted to. It all just served as a reminder to me that we all need to be committed to corporate sustainability and making a difference for our planet.
Corporate Sustainability and Climate Change
Of course, I asked them about climate change because I wanted to know if they had any doubt that the Earth was changing and that it was changing rapidly. Sitting with members of the Earth Sciences team it did not take me long to figure out that among those who have flown over the changing ice and who analyze the changing oceans (where most of our oxygen comes from and most of the carbon gets stored), it was evident that they KNOW it is changing. One of them said to me “even if we turn the ship now, the changes we have initiated may play themselves out regardless and the longer we wait to turn the more likely it will be.” Another who works on water issues in the Middle East showed me images of the aquifer drawing down in India. How do they know? Apparently we can now use satellites to measure gravity and lack of gravity means the water is going down, in some cases quickly. When they showed the data to the Indian Government they were shocked. At the end of my visit, I asked, “so what is the worst case scenario.” They assured me the Earth will be fine, us on the other hand, we may be in trouble they said.
Leaving NASA I came away more committed to spreading the word about the beauty and fragility of Earth, the nobility of the human spirit, corporate sustainability, and the very human act of a job well done with a purpose. I was even inspired that an often utterly dysfunctional government in Washington has managed to keep funding some of the most important science on Earth.