What’s Missing?


Both sides are locked in a fierce battle over the ownership of the ‘how,’ while seemingly unconcerned as to the ‘why’ or the ‘what’ they are fighting for.
–Paul D. Spudis

It’s the day before President Obama makes his trip to the Kennedy Space Center to “deliver remarks on the bold new course the Administration is charting for NASA and the future of U.S. leadership in human space flight.”  The blogosphere and office hallway conversations have heated up with early releases in the last 24 hours (see this factsheet from the Office of Science and Technology Policy and this factsheet from NASA).  Rumors are also swirling around about shifts in human spaceflight policy; depending on one’s stance, these shifts are either nit-noids or noteworthy.  I won’t focus on the rumors or details in the early release today.  Instead, today I’ll focus on what seems to me to be a clear void in the dialogue: it’s what’s missing.

A recent blog post by Scott Eblin (@Scott Eblin on Twitter) brought this to mind.  Entitled, “What Doesn’t Get Said, Doesn’t Get Heard”, he addresses several stories in which he emphasizes the importance of being frank with leadership fundamentals – things such as purpose, values, and vision – and the importance of saying them.  In particular the statement that “what doesn’t get said, doesn’t get heard” kept playing through my mind over and over again as I followed the latest in human spaceflight  policy developments over the last 24 hours.

Take a look at the first paragraph in each of the factsheets.  You’ll see phrases such as “a bold strategy for human spaceflight” and “a bold, new approach to human spaceflight.”  You’ll see similar phrases in the NASA FY2011 Budget Overview.  Yet in reading all, I see something missing, and it’s as simple as the answer to a question my eight-year-old daughter is asking me time and time again:

“Why?”

See, the underlying reason, the fundamental driving and compelling vision, is missing from the factsheets, from most of the conversations, and even in the mixed messaging we’re getting from NASA Headquarters and the White House.  Sometimes one can get a glimmer of the vision from the underlying rationale for various proposed human spaceflight initiatives and policy statements: “until we are able to reach Mars” and “to take us to an increased number of destinations and to new frontiers in space” are buried in the OSTP factsheet (it still begs the question: “why”).  I found it noteworthy that the NASA factsheet contained no such glimmer at all!  However, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden stated in congressional hearings over the last two months that the goal is to “get to Mars” (same question applies here, too: “why?”)

A piece written for the New Atlantis entitled, “A Space Program for the Rest of Us” by Rand Simberg also raises this same fundamental question.  Setting aside the anti-NASA rhetoric in the piece, there is this gem:

Leading up to the decisions that locked the United States into the shuttle program and then the space station, there were debates and proposals about what NASA should do next—but almost no public discussion of what, concretely, we were trying to accomplish in space. This is the fundamental problem of American space policy: there is no consensus on why we should bother with space at all, and such a consensus is stymied by the fact that those few people who do care about manned spaceflight disagree about why it’s worthwhile. Some people argue that we should go to space for science; others say we should go for the international prestige, or for the sheer adventure, or for the resources we might find; still others say we should go to inspire future generations. Some think all American hopes for spaceflight rest in NASA; others think NASA is a dinosaur and only the private sector can sustain manned spaceflight.

And so for most of the last forty years, in the absence of a consensus about why we should go to space, the how has been an afterthought. Policy decisions have just been carried along on the tide of current events and politics and personalities, with no overarching strategic purpose and with no definitive goal other than the preservation of jobs. If you don’t much care where you’re going, ‘it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ as the Cheshire Cat said to Alice.

Paul Spudis, in his excellent blog The Once and Future Moon, also raises this point in a recent post entitled, “Confusing the Ends with the Means”:

The release of the proposed NASA budget and new “direction” has led to an intense “cage fight” in the blogosphere over who has the best rocket and the best architecture.  Many “New Space” advocates are ecstatic, viewing the cancellation of the Constellation program as vindication of their view that:  a) this was a stupid architecture to begin with; and b) the purchase of launch services by NASA is more desirable than the development of same by the agency.  In the other corner, defenders of the existing program and paradigm see human spaceflight as still largely an experimental activity and that by contracting for launch services, astronauts’ lives will be put in danger, leading to the eventual termination of America’s human spaceflight program.  Both sides are locked in a fierce battle over the ownership of the “how,” while seemingly unconcerned as to the “why” or the “what” they are fighting for.

What we’ve gotten so far since the 2011 budget rollout on February 1 and subsequent policy statements are a lot of how’s but no why’s.  Same with the factsheets released yesterday.  Debates over destinations and timetables (or the lack thereof), programs, and the public versus private sector, also miss this point.

Why is this so important?

Having a clear, simply stated, and compelling vision provides the context of why we have a human spaceflight program in the first place.  It provides that underlying drive, that sanity check, on human spaceflight policy and its implementation.  It provides the buy-in and engenders cooperation and collaboration among all the parties – public and private – needed to realize the vision.  It unifies.

The absence of a vision is obvious.  It’s where we are today, with endless redirections and changes in course.  It leads to individuals working towards different and unaligned purposes.  It’s wasteful of time, resources, and the American taxpayer’s dollars.  I assert that because the vision has not been offered as a lead-in to the dialogue, whether writer or spoken, is the same as not having one.  That was the point of Scott’s blog post.

So here is the question: will President Obama provide the clear, simply stated, and compelling vision during his remarks tomorrow?  Tune in and see!

UPDATE: April 15, 2010.

President Obama delivered his remarks today.  You can read them in their entirety here.  For me, there is a key phrase towards the bottom:

Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.

This statement, recast in the form of a vision, fills in much of what’s missing for me.  I’ll have more to say on this topic next time.

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What’s Missing?