“A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.”
– Kahlil Gibran
Over the last week I’ve continued to follow the ever-developing debate on the future of human spaceflight. Most of the material I’ve encountered has been arguing over positions either in favor of the policies implied by the President’s budget, or about the ramifications of the cancellation of the Constellation Program. Frankly, it’s a lot of talk with little to add to moving the situation forward.
So today I’m going to share a snippet from my world concerning the project I’ve been leading for the last month. Like many projects associated with human spaceflight, it is certainly not immune from the impacts of the President’s budget. Yet unlike the people arguing over positions, I’m blessed to be in a position to do something even in the environment of uncertainty we’re facing. I’d like to point out this is something more than marching forward with the Program of Record until the funding is exhausted, and different from doing “busy work.” The project has meaning and is tied to an element of the future of human spaceflight. The fundamental question is this: how are we able to make meaningful progress in an environment of ambiguity and uncertainty?
I see it as the role – in fact, an obligation – of leadership to be able to make progress towards definable results even in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. Choosing smart actions is the key. I’d like to share some of these in the hope that others facing similar circumstances will see alignments in their own situations. As always, I’m looking for insights and suggestions from others who have had successes and lessons learned from similar situations.
The starting point revolves around this: what do we know, and what do we not know? By identifying what is known, we can use that as a starting point. Perhaps we know more than we think. Perhaps we can identify gaps that are easy to fill. By identifying what we don’t know, we can postulate potential futures. By bounding the problem, we can test those futures against likely scenarios and determine if a single, flexible course of action is possible, or if we need to follow multiple paths simultaneously. Finally, keeping in mind that there are “unknown unknowns,” we can gauge the likelihood that our course of action will be derailed if any of those “unknown unknowns” become realized.
Here is an example. What do we know? Assuming the President’s budget and its implied space policy is approved by Congress, we know that ISS will operate until 2020. We know that once the shuttle is retired, Russia will be the sole source of crew transport via Soyuz until US commercial efforts are ready. We know that ESA and JAXA can provide cargo transport today. We know that NASA’s human spaceflight focus will be in managing and operating the ISS and in the development and demonstration of future technologies to take us beyond low Earth orbit.
What do we not know? Here are some examples. We don’t know when the US commercial efforts will be ready. We don’t know the details behind NASA’s role in the execution of US commercial crew and cargo transport. We don’t know the specifics of the future technology effort, or which NASA Centers will be performing that work. We don’t know if there will be a sustainable market for commercial crew and cargo transport beyond that for ISS.
As for bounding the unknowns, it’s quite simple: assume the complete absence or worst case as a lower bound, and assume the complete presence or optimistic case as an upper bound. A simple example is that US commercial crew transport is available in 2013 (upper bound) and is not available at all in time to support the end of ISS in 2020 (lower bound). Another is that NASA operates the commercial transport much as it does today (upper bound), and is completely hands-off (lower bound).
Using such an approach, the team has made significant progress on the project that is almost indistinguishable from an achievement standpoint had all the unknowns been knowns under the Program of Record. That is not to say we’ve achieved the same result – we didn’t. Instead, we achieved a result of commensurate maturity and fidelity had the unknowns not existed. We’ve defined our own flexible path built upon the knowns and accommodating the unknowns and have reached the point where we are ready for some key decisions to be made.
I’m quite satisfied and proud of the team’s accomplishments in the face of the uncertainty and ambiguity we’re facing at present. Sure, we could wait around and hope that the future becomes clearer. We might be waiting for a while. Instead, I chose smart action as the course of action.
What would you choose?