Realigning US Human Spaceflight, Part 1: Diagnosis

“To recognize opportunity is the difference between success and failure”

In looking at the change facing US human spaceflight, we need to address the type of change and the level of commitment and resources needed to make the change successful.  As I wrote previously, the three types of change – transactional, transitional, and transformational change – need increasingly higher levels of investment as one moves up the change ladder.  I still see now, as I saw in December, that the situation we’re in with human spaceflight is a transitional change.  The government will transition from providing routine access to low earth orbit itself, and handing over the routine part to commercial entities.  This will allow the government to focus on developing the technologies necessary to extend the human presence beyond low earth orbit. Issues of mission, organizational culture and structure, policies and procedures, and a host of other concerns are raised, of course. The question is how do we create a path forward?

For that, I’ll briefly segue into a recent event.  A few days ago a friend of mine returned a book I had loaned her about a year ago.  I’m glad she remembered because I forgot about it!  The book, “The First 90 Days” by Michael Watkins, is a treasure trove of information for any leader assuming a new leadership role.  I highly recommend it.  The part of the book of interest for today extends beyond that of the new leader, and touches directly upon dealing with an organization, project, or unit facing a transitional change.  Using sound and proven principles rooted in the business world, we can look at the situation as a business, and match the business strategy to the situation at hand.  I’ll give you my analysis of the situation using the transition model suggested by Watkins that is greatly helping my understanding, and from that describe a strategy for moving forward.  Again, I’m highly motivated by a leadership model built around alignment, action, and results, so I’m much rather be doing something as opposed to spinning circles over debating the merits of various policy implications.  Even though my particular knothole is rather small in the grand scheme of US human spaceflight, what I will offer applies equally well to my knothole as well as to the entire enterprise.  So let’s get going.

The transition model described by Watkins is STaRS: start-up, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining success.  A start-up is as the name implies: the leader is taking on getting a new product, idea, or project off the ground.  A turnaround, likewise, is one in which a leader is taking on an entity that is recognized to be in trouble and getting it back on track.  A realignment involves revitalizing an entity that is drifting into trouble.  Finally, sustaining success involves taking a successful entity and making it even more successful.  Each of these involves a transition from that state to the sustaining success state as the goal.  A fifth state is described in STaRS as well, one that we would like to avoid in our case: shutdown and divestiture.  (Clearly, we are talking about an end in this case and not a transition to a sustaining success state.)

It’s imperative we diagnose the situation correctly, because improper diagnosis and failure to act accordingly will lead an entity to transition not to a sustaining success state, but instead to one of the other states, thus exacerbating the situation.  For example, failing to diagnose a realignment situation will eventually lead to the need for a turnaround.  Failing to maintain a sustaining success situation will lead to the need for a realignment.  And the most drastic of all, failing to diagnose a turnaround situation will lead to a complete shutdown and divestiture, as will a failure of a start-up.  The diagnosis is scalable, in that it can be applied in a global sense to an entire enterprise, or at varying levels such as a project or unit.  Clarity in diagnosis leads to clarity in the challenges and opportunities associated with the situation, resulting in the formulation of action plans needed to achieve the results desired.

So, where is US human spaceflight?

First, in a global sense, we are in a realignment situation, and here’s why.  By most recent measures, the US human spaceflight endeavor has been fairly successful in providing access and presence (albeit expensive, and we’ll get back to that in a minute) to low earth orbit.  We have a continuous presence in low earth orbit with the International Space Station, now in its second decade of operations.  We’ve operated shuttle continuously since 1981, with exceptions of the gaps following the Challenger and Columbia accidents.  We started an ambitious program to return humans beyond low earth orbit as the means to realize the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration given the technical, budgetary, schedule, and political drivers of the time.

However, most would agree that there are signs of trouble, mostly around long-term sustainability.  The shuttle, though an engineering marvel for its time, is over-engineered for the task of routine access to low earth orbit and has high fixed costs, making it relatively expensive to operate.  The International Space Station needs to provide a return on its investment commensurate with its construction and annual operations costs, and with the opportunities provided by its unique position as the only major human-tended laboratory in microgravity.  Our approach to extending human presence beyond low earth orbit based upon the architecture in the Constellation Program is unsustainable in the current climate; the Augustine Committee helped to shine a light on this.  The indications are there for all of us to see: in the global sense US human spaceflight is not in a sustaining success situation.  Likewise, the situation does not have the hallmarks of a crisis, thus making the situation not that of a turnaround.  Therefore, we can conclude reasonably that US human spaceflight is in a realignment situation.

So, what do we do?  It’s simple: we initiate what is called a recovery cycle by reinventing the business of US human spaceflight.  We do this by redirecting our resources, changing our approach to routine access to low earth orbit, altering our structure, and shifting our culture in fundamental ways.

How do we do all of that?  I have some suggestions for how to proceed in Part 2.

Realigning US Human Spaceflight, Part 1: Diagnosis