Lessons from USAID-NASA Town Hall

It’s a rare experience to witness top authorities of both science and religion come to town and share remarkably similar messages—we are at a pivotal moment in history and our actions will have consequences. When two or more knowledgeable, oftentimes opposing, independent, authorities are advocating a similar course of action, it is worth paying attention.

Pope Francis’ recent visit followed the September 17 town hall hosted by USAID honoring its partnership with NASA. Compared to the Pope’s visit, the event was subdued, but it had a “superstar in the house” feel to it nonetheless. Charles North, senior deputy assistant administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment (E3) and a career Senior Foreign Service officer, was joined, among others, by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and two astronauts, Air Force Col. Terry Virts and Italian Air Force Capt. Samantha Cristoforetti, both returned in June 2015 from an extended trip to the International Space Station. Maryland born and raised, Terry Virts gave a poignant talk on how space programs connect to humanitarian work.

The International Space Station has become a platform for Earth observation. For example, more than 140,000 images across six continents have been used to support response to floods, wildfires, tropical storms and other extreme events around the world. The partnership between USAID and NASA allows Earth observation information to improve environmental management and resilience to climate change through regional institutions. From space, the boundaries that struck Virts most were those delineating areas of wealth from poverty, evident at night by city lights surrounded by a vast darkness.

Italian astronaut Cristoforetti returned to Earth after 200 days in space, breaking the world record for the most time spent in space on a single mission by a woman. In her remarks, she described the intimate relationship that developed and grew between planet Earth and the astronauts aboard the spacecraft. She told of the necessity of the six astronauts to look out for each other’s well-being; how if one was compromised in any way, it affected them all.

She described how she began to view the Earth, out her porthole, as a fellow spaceship in orbit. Just as on the International Space Station, if any on “Spaceship Earth” were compromised, the entire planet would be affected. Everyone needs to take care of those who need assistance for the good of all. Both astronauts returned with a deeper relationship to planet Earth and a desire to take care of it—what Pope Francis referred to as taking responsibility for our “common home.”

Another noteworthy moment came during NASA Administrator Bolden’s remarks in response to a question on NASA’s secret to achieving the “best place to work” title three years in a row. A retired Marine general and former shuttle astronaut (on the original Hubble Space Telescope deployment mission, no less), Bolden did not skip a beat: The secret is valuing and appreciating his workforce and engaging all levels, especially mid-level managers, in transparent decision-making and understanding of the mission. With USAID’s current ranking of 19th out of 25 participating mid-size agencies, I hope this wisdom, which is being dropped in our laps, is not ignored.

USAID is on the right track in using the best available data to combat climate change. As USAID pursues internal reforms, it would be indefensible for management not to utilize the best available data regarding employee retention and satisfaction: transparently engage staff at all levels in our mission and decision-making now!


Sharon Wayne
USAID AFSA Vice President