It’s a Matter of Vision

If you’re not sure where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else. –Anonymous

Two days have passed since the President’s budget for 2011 was released to the public.  Two days to allow the messages to transmit, be received, and to be processed.  Two days of listening to press conferences, reading articles, and hallway conversations with colleagues.

Two days to realize that we have some fundamental problems with the future of human spaceflight that left unaddressed will set us back severely, perhaps permanently.

This is not to imply that the future of human spaceflight is 100% and completely doomed.  With proper measures, we can continue to excel in leadership in human spaceflight and realize the vision to provide a sustainable presence in space.  It starts with vision and how it aligns with the goals and objectives of NASA.

For me, it crystallized this morning during a run.  My iPod playlist randomly played Also sprach Zarathustra, which we all know as the theme to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.  After being choked up momentarily, it came to me at that moment. One of the fundamental problems I see with the President’s budget is a basic disconnect between the vision for human spaceflight, and the goals and objectives indicated in the budget.  To help explain this disconnect, I’ll use some basic leadership principles pertaining to vision, goals and objectives.

First, a vision is directional, rewarding, inspiring, vivid, and eventual.  This is easy to remember by the acronym DRIVE.

One of the best examples of this we have is the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration with its fundamental vision of a permanent and sustainable human presence in space.  I re-read it today, and it meets each of the elements for a properly-crafted vision.  Read it for yourself and decide if it indicates for you the direction we are to go, provides that spark of reward and inspiration in you, and is vivid in that you can picture it happening eventually.  The vision provides that guiding light that beckons us to a greater future and should withstand the test of time.  The 2004 VSE is one of the best examples of DRIVE that I can cite, and it’s a bonus that it so happens to be near and dear to the topic of human spaceflight.

Second, goals and objectives are SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.

Again, read the VSE and you will see very concrete examples of goals and objectives that meet the SMART criteria.  This is not to say that once goals and objectives are established, they are chiseled in stone.  Goals and objectives are, by their very nature, changeable if the original goals and objectives do not meet one or more of the SMART criteria with the passage of time.  One example can be found in the VSE document itself:

“Conduct the first extended human expedition to the lunar surface as early as 2015, but no later than the year 2020.”

The Augustine Committee pointed out problems in attainability in the timeframe proposed given the implementation chosen.  To make it a realistic goal, more time and more money would be needed.  However, the President’s budget apparently chose to remove this as a goal altogether by canceling the Constellation Program and by not offering anything specific to take its place towards meeting this goal.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden likened the cancellation as “a death in the family.”

Let’s be clear on another point.  Some equate the Constellation Program and its architecture of the Orion capsule, Ares I launcher, Ares V heavy lift vehicle, and Altair lunar lander as the VSE itself.  This is not the case.  The Constellation Program is an implementation chosen as the means to achieve the goal of conducting extended human expeditions on the lunar surface by no later than 2020.  It was also chosen as the means to provide routine access owned by the US to the ISS – in essence, killing two birds with one stone.

For the latter, we now have an approach based on commercial transport.  We will also have the Russians and their Soyuz spacecraft as a viable backup, as long as we as a nation are willing to pay the price they demand and resolve the self-imposed issues around the Iran Nonproliferaction Act.  Although the commercial transport option is unproven, it feels to me like the right direction to take towards a routine and sustainable access to low Earth orbit, and thus provides a valid means to realize that aspect of the VSE.

The former is a different story.  Made perfectly clear by NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver in the Monday teleconference briefings to the press, “It’s not about destinations and timetables.”  Unfortunately, a destination helps bring specificity, and a timetable is a required ingredient, of a proper goal and objective.  Without those, we don’t have a goal.  What we are left with are implementations to be defined around new technology development and flight demonstrations.  Without specificity and timetables, we are left with activities towards no end or for a clear purpose.  Without both, we’ve gone back to the future to the NASA of the 1990’s, stuck in low Earth orbit with no defined reason to go beyond.

Here is what I would do.  I would advise Charlie and Lori to embrace the vision as written, maybe at most refine the language to help with direction and to help bring to life the desired end state in a vivid way.  From there, I would define goals and objectives around SMART – if it is the current goals and objectives with updated timetables and details, so be it.  Better that than with no timetables – otherwise, we don’t have real goals.  I would then design implementations – or bring more details to the described elements unveiled in the President’s budget.  Most of all, be bold and inspiring!

I would also advise Charlie and Lori to focus more on the NASA workforce immediately.  The current attention to commercial crew transport, with teleconferences, press conference, and photo opportunities, sends a wrong message to the NASA workforce involved in human spaceflight.  It is as if the commercial carriers are “the new NASA” and the folks who poured their hearts and souls into Constellation are “the old NASA” and are irrelevant to the future.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Many of us are here at NASA because we have the shared vision of extending the human presence permanently beyond Earth. It will take the dedication of a workforce aligned with a shared vision to bring it to reality.

The role of leadership is to lead in this area, starting from the President, and continuing to the NASA leadership.  Fix it now. Make slight tweaks to the vision, and updates to the goals and objectives, and do it soon.  Despite the leaks last week, I believe the NASA leadership was kept in the dark about the details in the budget until the last minute, and are still grappling with an upside-down approach to implementing a vision, in which the implementation is defined first and the vision, goals, and objectives are crafted later to fit the implementation.  If this is the chosen approach of the current leadership team, maybe we will need to ride it out until the current Administration and leadership is replaced, and a more enlightened leadership assumes the role of crafting true goals and objectives around a vision we can all believe in.  However, I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet on the current leadership.  I will continue to establish clear goals and objectives in my own area that drives towards VSE.  The team and I will continue to define and execute the activities needed to achieve the goals and objectives we set.  Bottom line: I’m willing to give the current leadership a chance, because if they get it, it will be obvious, simple and apparent.  And soon.

It’s a Matter of Vision