The New Normal

Because that’s the new normal. ~Damon McMurdo

As I press ahead in my Executive MBA studies, I turned from active participant to cheerleader to two watershed events in the space business this week: the award of the latest round of funding for the development of a commercial crew transportation service, and the spectacular landing of the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater on Mars. Although these two come from totally different parts of NASA, they are united by a common theme: challenging the perception held by some of a risk-averse agency, one that is afraid to push the boundaries of space exploration.

The two-and-a-half billion dollar roving laboratory that is Curiosity used a novel landing technique: the skycrane. The sequence of aerobraking, followed by parachute deploy, followed by powered descent, then lowering the rover to the surface by cables, had never been done before. Some called it risky, and sure – based on what I know about risk, there was some risk of failure. Yet when we are working any problem, we know to identify the risks and decide whether they are to be avoided, mitigated, or accepted and monitored. The risk trade done by the designers of Curiosity performed that analysis and arrived at the solution you saw in action Monday. And it worked spectacularly.

Likewise, for commercial crew, there are risks associated with it. Besides the paradigm shift of purchasing future transportation services rather than a vehicle, there are still risks remaining in the development process. How many of the funded commercial ventures will actually produce an end-service? What happens if go under a continuing resolution for part of the upcoming fiscal year? What happens if sequestration happens? What happens if funding for the upcoming fiscal year is chopped by Congress? I could go on and on, but here is the point: a risk-averse agency would wring its hands in the face of such risks and say, “Gosh, the future is so uncertain, that there is no way we should press ahead.”

Such is not the case with commercial crew, as it was not the case with Curiosity.

Risks don’t have to be avoided; they can be mitigated with engineering know-how, and accepted where warranted. This is the new normal.

Text and photo © 2012 Joe Williams. All rights reserved.