Manners Will Take You Where Brains and Money Won’t

Donald Gregory James is an executive leader, a manager, a mentor, and a friend, father, and husband. Today, we have the pleasure to interview him to learn about his experiences at NASA and his upcoming book: Manners Will Take You Where Brains and Money Won’t: Wisdom from Momma and 35 Years at NASA.

He began his thirty-five year NASA career as a Presidential Management Intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland, in 1982. In 1984, he transferred to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, serving in roles of increasing responsibility and complexity, including public affairs, government and community relations, and education. 

After the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy, which affected him deeply, Donald chose to make a career at NASA. Asked to support the postaccident speaking tour of backup Teacher in Space Project astronaut Barbara Morgan, Donald was so inspired by the overwhelming love and support for America’s space program–and education–that he realized NASA was a special place where he could make a difference. 

In 2014, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden selected Donald to serve as the agency’s associate administrator for education, where he led a team of civil servants and contractors organized to strengthen NASA’s and the nation’s future technical workforce. Donald retired from NASA on March 31, 2017. 

Donald holds a BA in international relations from the University of Southern California. He was awarded a three-year graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation to pursue his MA in international economic development from American University. He also studied economics and history at Cambridge University and attended Harvard’s Senior Executive Fellows program. He is the recipient of numerous awards and citations for exemplary service.

Interview by Alfonso Delgado Bonal.


1.- You worked at NASA for 35 years. You were there in 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster happened, and you observed the final touch of the shift towards commercialization with the 2015 US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. How would you summarize the changes in the Agency during those years?

Probably the place to start is the end of the Apollo program.  Since Apollo was as much about competition with the Soviet Union (beating them to the Moon) as anything, now much attention was going to be paid to what NASA would do post Apollo.  In fact, the public’s interest in human space exploration waned and with the distraction of the Watergate scandal there was little appetite to fund beyond Apollo 17.  There was the Apollo-Soyuz mission and the Skylab mission.  

So NASA shifted towards the Space Shuttle which was an idea rooted in the notion of a reusable spacecraft.  The Shuttle would be able to carry far more mass to orbit enabling large science payloads and military payloads (later, the military and NRO launched their big satellites on larger expendable vehicles). So there had been this notion of a natural progression of space exploration.  Though it took different forms, it basically went like this:  develop the space shuttle to establish low-cost to LEO  (low-earth orbit).  The Shuttle became the only way to build ISS.  

In fact, the former Administrator Dan Goldin once excoriated many of us employees (nothing personal, just in general) about whispering to Congress that they should perhaps cut ISS because the ISS budget was getting so big that it was eating into other NASA programs.  The thinking went that if ISS was cut that money could be better spent on science or aero programs.  Goldin was livid when he heard some NASA employees may be doing that. He made it clear that beyond the fact that all NASA employees were duty bound to support the President’s budget, that if in fact Congress cut ISS, then there would be no reason to have a Shuttle.  And so if we cut Shuttle way back or eliminate it, the very future of NASA was at stake.  

So, we would build a space station (which would become the ISS) for permanent use of LEO. Use the Shuttle to ferry the large parts of the ISS.  ISS becomes a major technological feat involving multiple nations.  (Cost for Shuttle and ISS nowhere close to original projections).

Policy begins to focus on use of commercial space operators to ferry astronauts to ISS.  This gains significant traction when the US had to increasingly depend on the Russians to take all astronauts to ISS on the Soyuz.  This was due to the US deciding to stop flying the Space Shuttle and ultimately rely on commercial operators.  The move to end Shuttle was in part motivated by the Columbia tragedy. Until the commercial operators were mature and safe enough to fly astronauts, the US had to pay for (very expensive) seats on a Russian Soyuz rocket.  With the US Gov’t (i.e. NASA) getting out of the LEO business, the strategy was to focus NASA’s attention on deep space, namely returning humans to the Moon and then to Mars.  NASA works on the next big rocket post Shuttle which would ultimately be known as  the “Space Launch System (SLS).”  The program was originally called “Constellation.”  Constellation was deemed too expensive by the Obama Administration, so he cancelled that and evolved to what is now known at SLS. SO the goal for a long time was to do three things:  1) permanent presence in LEO  2)  return to the Moon (humans) and 3) humans to Mars.  

To be clear, there is MUCH MORE to NASA than human exploration so NASA shouldn’t be viewed through just that lens.  NASA has a healthy Aeronautics program  (the first “A” in NASA) and a world-class space science effort with notable missions like Hubble, Spitzer, Galileo, Mars Rovers, etc.)  I cannot overstate the importance of NASA’s investment in planetary and earth science as well as Aeronautics.  I focused on human exploration simply because it tends to get the most attention.  So to round out the question of the changes, I’ll just say that from Obama to Trump the biggest shift was to refocus on sending humans to the Moon whereas Obama stated in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center that he wanted to skip the Moon (“been there done that”) and go right to Mars.  That Obama policy change drove the cancellation of Constellation which was Moon, then Mars,  to focusing on the SLS effort which was Mars only (to send humans).  Under Trump, sending people back to the Moon became the priority and that program became “Artemis” (In Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin to Apollo).  The space policy still calls for returning to Mars but not anytime soon. The focus is not only returning humans to the Moon but to send the first woman to the Moon.  This is stated policy with a target date of end of 2024.  Most people believe this is unrealistic and everyone expects Biden to push out the 2024 back-to-the-Moon timeframe.  NASA has enjoyed bipartisan support, mainly because it’s seen as a NASA treasure, it’s assets are geographically spread out (so, in many congressional districts), and it really inspires young people. 

2.- Space exploration is challenging and NASA is well known for its association with other agencies (ESA, JAXA, CSA, Roscosmos, etc) for complex missions. However, it seems that not everyone is on board with the Artemis Accords (Roscosmos for example). Are we in the process of changing collaboration for competition because now people think of space as a profitable endeavor?

I am not too sure about this. I suspect we’ll see a rebalancing of this thinking in the Biden/Harris Administration.  To be sure, there has always been the idea of using assets in space, like water on the Moon to make fuel, and mining the Moon for other purposes.  The question seems to be about whether a nation-state, just because it has the capability to do something (for profit) with the Moon, should be able to do that.  There is a long history of the idea that “space” or the “Moon” or other celestial bodies don’t inherently “belong” to a nation-state simply because that state has the ability to settle it.  My own view is that there will continue to be disagreements and concerns around this but it won’t really matter that much UNTIL a nation (or a nation’s company, e.g. SpaceX, Blue Origin, etc.) discovers a way to monetize or heavily leverage a space resource. Then I expect there will be calls for some stewardship of the resource or the celestial body by an international organization.  I DO believe we’ll see more collaboration with Artemis as it becomes more real.

3.- The two richest individuals in the world right now (Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk) are deeply invested in space. Millions of entrepreneurs around the world dream to follow their steps. In your new book, you argue that “Manners Will Take You Where Brains And Money Won’t.” Do you think that lesson also applies to entrepreneurs?

Yes, I do.  I see “Manners” , as I characterize it, as a foundational skill.  I know of no profession, occupation, or vocation, except maybe a Buddhist monk, where the dynamics of human interrelations are not important.  Even an entrepreneur who is a private inventor eventually has to raise money to develop her product; likely work with others on the business side of things and so forth.  I argue that if you haven’t properly cultivated your manners’ skills that you may not be successful.  In the book, I argue a couple of points that I want to underscore here.  You need other skills for sure to be successful, like technical skills, judgment skills, and so forth.  As I said in the book, NASA will never choose you to be an astronaut because you have great manners.  You have to know how to fly the spaceship!  That said, if you CAN fly the spaceship, made all A’s in school, aced every test, etc, but you have HORRIBLE manners, well you may never see the inside of the spaceship.  I could probably make a strong case that many failures by entrepreneurs can be traced to a manners problem.  The important point one has to remember is that my definition of manners is broad.  I am not just referring to just politeness and etiquette.  Manners literally means all manner of how one shows up in the world and what one does with them.

4.- I said earlier that space exploration is challenging when in reality I should have said tremendously difficult. Creating a successful space startup is not an easy task either. You often talk about the importance of teams and mentors but Bezos’ and Musk stories highlight their individual character. How can it be reconciled? 

Did B/M talk about their individual character exclusive of other factors? I’ve never studied their paths/rise to wealth, but I would be curious if I could draw a connection between what they characterize as “character” and what I define as “manners”.  It may be that the overlap of concepts is significant.  I think a better example of a critique of manners as it relates to success is to look at Donald Trump.  By any indicator I would use to characterize good manners, Trump would fall significantly short in any indicator.  

I am guessing between his father’s wealth and the transfer of “privilege” to his son, together with his (Trump’s) energetic personality and drive, he (45) was able to accomplish a lot, by some standards.  Of course in my book (no pun intended), any path towards wealth, whether real or not, is NOT an indicator that someone “made it” as in the part of the book’s title “…will take you where…”  Not to get too airy-fairy about this, but I do believe in Karma and I think Trump will reap what he has sown. He already has – just look at the millions and millions of people who came out of the woodwork to campaign, march, and vote against him (losing by 7 million votes). 

 Why?  I don’t think it was just a policy difference people had with him though there were plenty of his policies for people to dislike (wall, tax cuts to rich, cages for immigrants, etc).  To be sure, millions and millions supported him, and some openly said they LIKED his “manner” (as I would put it).  And perhaps his manner got him elected in the first place but I suspect very strongly that with history and historians as our guides, we’ll learn that other factors (for one, white supremacists fears) were at play.  Let me try to be succinct in my views on this.  If you asked me to bet on two space start-up entrepreneurs and one had impeccable manners as I would describe it and the other didn’t  (i.e. they are a real A-hole for starters), not even knowing their respective knowledge, skills and abilities (so let’s just say that is even), I would bet on the manners person.  Hands down. Everytime.

5.- The lessons in your book apply to everything, not just NASA or space. In your list of necessary skills, you listed “Authentic presence”. What do you mean by that, and who would be a good example of it?

I don’t feel connected to people I judge as phony and distant.  “Authentic Presence” is the opposite of that.  I was in Atlanta on a business trip once and the hotel doorman, a young man, who I’d say was in his late twenties, greeted me with a big smile and said ebulliently “HIIIIiiii, HOW are YOU sir today.”  He went on and on.  He helped me with my bag and showed me where to go to check in.  He was nice, friendly and very polite, almost obsequious.  I didn’t feel he was authentic.  I literally said to myself, “wow, I bet he doesn’t act that way at home and when he’s with his buddies.”  He had his “be-really-nice-to-new guests” act going, just like he was trained to do.  

The notion of “presence” is that feeling that the person you are with is really WITH you at the moment.  It’s like when you meditate and the guide asks you to just focus on your breath and (if you are aware) you notice your mind is thinking about that work assignment, what you want to make for breakfast, the upcoming trip you’re going to take.  You are not present with your breath. Similarly, have you been with people and when you talk to them you get the impression their mind and thoughts are elsewhere.  This is what I mean by not being present.  The best example I have is the story I tell of young Gabriel in my book.  I met this young man at a science fair.  I felt he was completely present and his manner felt like one he always has.  I never sensed I was getting the “good manners” act.  He was both authentic and present.  And this kid was only 11 years old.  The man I worked for at NASA, Charlie Bolden, exhibited authentic presence. He was who he was, and when he was with you, he was with you!  I shaped my understanding about presence from Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy.  She wrote a book called “Presence.”

6.- Hard skills vs soft(er) skills. What’s more important to be “successful”?

I think these distinctions aren’t useful and I would eliminate them.  You have skills.  A broad range of skills in different areas. I don’t find labeling skills “hard” or “soft” helpful, especially in the sense of “better than” and “not as good as.”  As you learned, I am not even a fan of the term “success.” I don’t think that’s what people want anyway.  I think people yearn for meaning and fulfillment.  There are many miserable so-called “successful” people  (you can probably name 5 well-known “stars” who took their life, were drug-addicted, alcoholics, etc. yet many deemed them successful.  A case in point:  Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball’s ex-husband.  He died an alcoholic, alone and at 69 but probably had a significant net worth).  There are people who aren’t rich who have significant meaning in their lives (e.g. the Peace Pilgrim; mothers organized against gun violence; monks, etc.)

I argue (and believe) people like Oprah, Gates, Bezos, Musk, Ellison, Hewson, and others have developed a range of skills in different dimensions.  Skills aren’t binary.

7.- At the end of your career, there was only one person separating you from the President of the United States. Instead of talking about every single promotion you achieved, you claim that you are always interviewing. Does that apply to everyone from coders to managers, or only to the latter group?

“You are always interviewing” applies to everyone, coders and managers, all the time.  The key is to not assume the interview is about the next job or promotion.  I guarantee you that if you are chatting it up with someone who doesn’t work in your organization or even the same company and you show up in a way that I say is bad manners (maybe you are caustic to the server at the bar you are at with your acquaintance), it could very well be that when you contact that person years later about “opportunities” that you get a non-committal response.  Why?  Because he remembered how you treated the server at the bar and thinks (to himself), that you are probably not a good fit.  Or look at it totally differently.  Let’s say you bump into that person and ask him to write a letter of recommendation for you?  Now you are asking him to put HIS reputation on the line for you.  Does he want to do that?  What happens if he writes a glowing reference letter, you get hired and then you flop because you really are a real jerk just like he suspected.  What happens?  Well, your friend’s reputation is now linked to yours and the company you work at, whoever it was that used his letter as the basis for hiring you, now feels burned.  Your friend sold him a bill of goods – YOU!

8.- Let’s talk about Diversity. You are self-defined as “Black.” There are narrow-minded individuals everywhere in the world (and I am sure you have encountered some of them) but that should not be confused with the culture of an organization. What comes to your mind when you think of NASA and Diversity?

Diversity is two things for me:  First, it’s making sure NASA reflects the diversity of the Nation as best as possible. Second, it’s making sure that this diversity includes different ways of thinking about problems and different skill sets that are brought to bear on the mission. At NASA, our work is better when we have people who come from different parts of the country; people whose education reflects the many ways people are educated.  For example, it would NOT be good if every NASA leader and program manager all went to the same Ivy League school.  Nor would it be good if they all attended the same HBCU or Tribal College.  Diversity includes generations, especially aligning younger fresh-out engineers with senior engineers on a mission. Research shows that more diverse organizations perform better and that when people “see people like them” it inspires them to consider pursuing similar disciplines.

9.- SpaceX or Blue Origin benefited enormously from NASA grants and contracts. That allowed them to develop their companies. For example, SpaceX received over $5.2 billion from NASA under the Commercial Crew and Cargo Programs from 2006 to 2018. How do you do business with NASA?

There are many avenues.  Probably the best way to probe is to engage NASA’s Office of Small Business Programs. (Assuming you are a small business person.  There are lesser-known companies active in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Programs and I expect to see many more as we mature our capabilities towards returning the Moon.  No doubt the barrier to entry is cost, track record, and technical capability.  It helped, for example, that the leader for Axoim Space, the company building the first commercial space station, is the former NASA head of the ISS Program, Mike Suffredini.

As a bonus track question, I think you mentioned the Orion spacecraft? it would be great to learn a bit about your experiences, what you learned, challenges, etc. 

I worked on Orion at NASA JSC from January to June 2006.  I was detailed to the Project Office as part of my senior leadership training.  I was assigned to work on the Orion project plan and develop the template for the weekly Orion project review meetings.  Challenges:  First, I am not a trained engineer and the plan is basically a management document about an engineering effort.  Second,  all NASA project plans are “children” of Program Plans.  In this case, the program was the Constellation Program and Project was the Orion space capsule.  Obviously there were many other projects under Constellation (Ares booster, ground ops, upper stage, etc.).  The problem when I arrived was that the Program plan had not been completed, so I didn’t have higher-order guidance to go by.  Third, NASA space programs are all driven by a well-established engineering procedural requirements, most notably, NPR 7120.5(c).  Where “NPR” = NASA Procedural Requirements and the number is the specific section that governs the engineering and management of space programs.  The challenge was that when I was asked to write the plan for Orion it was supposed to align with the NPR.  Unfortunately, NASA was in the middle of updating the NPR from “c” to “d”  (I think that was the designation).  So I had to work with people to figure out what would be different in the “d” version that I had to incorporate into the plan.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons and some tidbits.  First, my lack of engineering training didn’t make my job more difficult.  I was writing a plan and organizing the monthly reviews.  The plan was really a compilation of several sub plans, so my main task was to get others to do their sub plans based on the guidance I gave them and I had to integrate

all of them into a coherent document.  I use this lesson to persuade students, and early-career professionals to NOT assume that a particular job is beyond their capabilities.  Don’t automatically reject an opportunity simply because you think you can’t do the job.  It’s possible you can.

I also learned that the original idea of repurposing Shuttle SRB’s for the core of Ares is de facto building a new rocket.  As such, the idea that we were going to save a lot of money by just plucking an SRB from the Shuttle program, dress it up a bit, add a space capsule on top and off we go, was not going to happen.  I am exaggerating of course to make a point, but it taught me a lot in the engineering world about the impact of leveraging older systems.  It’s not as easy as you think.

Donald Gregory James is an executive leader, a manager, a mentor, and a friend, father, and husband.

Donald served as NASA Associate Administrator for Education until he retired from NASA in 2017 after 35 years of service. He holds a BA in international relations from the University of Southern California and a MA in international economic development from American University. He also studied economics and history at Cambridge University and attended Harvard’s Senior Executive Fellows program. He is the recipient of numerous awards and citations for exemplary service.

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