’Relevance is key to survival’

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Stu Witt, local entrepreneur and ambassador for private spaceflight, in a recent SpaceNews article by Irene Klotz, emphasized the importance of embracing change in order to continue as a race of explorers.

Witt expounded on this future-focused philosophy in a recent interview with the News Review, where he also identified a disturbing trend that may hold humanity back from subsequent advancements: an aversion to taking risks.

This is a challenge Witt faces daily in California, where his find-a-way-to-say-yes approach to business is bogged down by bureaucratic noes.

The acute irony is that many point to an increase in private-sector revenues as the best hope of recovery for California’s troubled economy.

“Has California done everything possible to foster growth in industry? Well, that question is very personal to me, because I find myself asking why I’m in California. I would ask you if California has done anything to promote industry.”

In the last year Witt has already lost XCOR to Texas, where XCOR’s 50 employees immediately received what amounted to a raise since they no longer pay state income tax.

Then, said Witt, they pay a fraction of California’s vehicle license fees while enjoying fresh asphalt on virtually every street.

“It’s more than a difference in business climate, it’s the cumulative effect of the enormous investment we make for the privilege of living in California and seeing a level of service that does not reflect what we pay.”

Witt pointed to professional golfer Phil Mickleson’s comments about taxes as a perfect example of how Californians are penalized for achievement.

“California has not made its workers feel appreciated,” said Witt. “So now you have an environment where a smaller and smaller percentage of the population is working to support everyone.”

This is not a new problem, he said, but the solution has been delayed so long that it can no longer be ignored. And those deferrals have only compounded the devastation of the eventual remedy.

“I’ll tell you what keeps me up at night — sequestration. There is a train coming our way that’s got speed and direction. This is something we’ve never dealt with. You think we’ve been in a recession? Quite frankly, we’ve been at the trough for a long time.”

He said the net effect of reducing federal funding is much greater than the actual cuts that are made.

“Most of our jobs are federally funded, and our nation is broke. America is about to find that out. But this is a manmade problem that we’ve been incapable of facing with for two professional generations. So now we don’t have a choice but to deal with it.”

Witt said that the only hope of true recovery — a return to new creation and productivity, not just the perpetuated borrowing and shifting of existing resources — is for agencies and individuals to examine their own relevance.

“We have worked hard to make Mojave Air and Space Port relevant to the region’s needs,” said Witt. That quest for relevance has propelled Witt and his team to success in spite of an inhibiting environment.

“As long as I can, I am going to give people permission to succeed, to take risks, to explore — even permission to fail,” said Witt. “But that is a risk quotient we struggle with every day. How far can we stick our necks out in a state that doesn’t endorse the concept of taking risks?”

He said he is also concerned about the impact this risk-averse stance will have on future generations. “I grew up and raised my boys in an environment that is different than your children will grow up in. Here’s what I contend: how will kids understand boundaries in their formative years if we put helmets and kneepads and steel-toed shoes on them to ride their tricycles?

“What’s wrong with getting your feet caught in the spokes?” What if it is that experience of getting your toes pinched at age 3 that saves you from losing a limb at 30?

“I am obviously way out of step with our state in the way I manage. But in a recession I’ve found a way to offer people permission, and a framework where they can actually run their businesses. They are still constrained by the same regulation and taxes that inhibit you and me — but we have still managed to cultivate a technical work environment by telling them, ‘Yes, you can.’”

He contrasted the recent advancements of the private sector in low-orbital spaceflight with those of NASA. With a relatively lean workforce of 2,200, Elon Musk and SpaceX managed to put a capsule into space faster, and much less expensively, than the federal agency.

“The problem is once you have an agency of 85,000 workers and multiple facilities, your focus and your energy becomes consumed by simply sustaining that workforce and keeping all the lights on. It’s time for us to look at what they’re doing and require something back.

“What we need is a return to relevance — for our government labs to reevaluate and reinvent their organizations. It won’t be easy — hell, even Congress has not been able to do it. But that’s what you have to do to survive.”

Part of survival is being on a fiscally sustainable trajectory — a challenge that is the crux of crises on both national and state scenes.

Witt said the problem with the status-quo mindset is that it fails to nurture the very leaders who could effect the change that could ultimately lead to long-term survival. “Those are the people that you need to showcase and hold up as examples. Instead, they are being restrained, even punished.

“I challenge Americans to assess their own relevance — in their jobs, in their families, and in their communities. If you have employees who are no longer adding value to your organization, give them an opportunity to retool so that they can. If they can’t, well, life is all about choices.

“But we no longer have the luxury of carrying everyone in America on our backs simply because they need a salary. We all have to give something back.”

Story First Published: 2013-02-06