Driving Towards Success in Human Spaceflight

“Success is almost totally dependent upon drive and persistence.  The extra energy required to make another effort or try another approach is the secret of winning.”
–Denis Waitley

In recent weeks, President Obama spoke about his space policy at the Kennedy Space Center, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden addressed NASA employees from the Johnson Space Center.  Various internal teams at NASA continue working on the plans to implement the new space policy, Congress continues with its hearings, and the media and bloggerati continue to debate the merits of the proposed changes from polarized extremes.  Clearly, we have a long way to go – how are we doing so far?  To look at this, I’ll review the types of changes underway and where I see each of the key components in its quest to drive towards success.

The new space policy has, as its central element, NASA handing over routine access to low earth orbit to the commercial sector so that it can focus on the “game changing” technologies necessary to push the boundaries of exploration beyond low earth orbit.  For NASA’s human spaceflight, such change is transitional on the spectrum of transactional, transitional, and transformational change.  The number, breadth, and depth of pieces involved in changing this part of NASA from primarily an operations-oriented focus to a research and development focus is quite numerous and complex when taking into account all the technical, budgetary, workforce, and political factors.  The outcome is quite simple: as I see it for NASA’s human spaceflight, it’s make the change, or perish; monolithic government-sponsored projects for human spaceflight are not self-sustainable in the long run, given the factors I listed earlier.  In terms of business models, NASA’s human spaceflight is undergoing a realignment on the start-up, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining success (STaRS) spectrum.  Using the realignment model gives us an idea on how to pursue the transitional change for NASA’s human spaceflight: (1) deal with the deeply ingrained cultural norms that characterizes human spaceflight in the past; (2) unify support around the need for change by those who will enact the change; and (3) restructure the top team and refocus the organization on NASA’s new role in human spaceflight.

In contrast, the change in human spaceflight is even greater for the commercial sector: create essentially from nothing a sustainable business model around access to low earth orbit.  Such change is transformational: the number, breadth, and depth of pieces involved are tremendous in number and complexity, the risks of failure are quite high with potentially catastrophic consequences for the future of human spaceflight, and the resulting outcome is unpredictable yet limitless in potential.  Even for existing commercial companies wanting to break into this business, the mode is one of a start-up, just as it is for the actual start-up companies.  Here, the approach to change is different: (1) build structures, infrastructures, and systems that involve the right blend of innovation and partnership with NASA; (2) weld together a cohesive, high-performance team that utilizes a blend of new and experienced talent; and (3) make do with limited resources.  The challenge for a commercial-centric paradigm is for NASA and industry to avoid the failures from the past in similar endeavors to “outsource” work from government to the commercial sector, to mitigate the risks associated with the high failure rate of commercial start-ups in general, and to create a market that goes beyond providing services to NASA.

Back to NASA, how is the realignment progressing?

With regards to step 1, NASA is making some progress, yet has a way to go to reach the tipping point.  Case in point is the messaging to date from NASA’s leaders to the NASA workforce, reflecting the attempt to address the deeply ingrained cultural norms in step 1.  One factor in favor of NASA’s leadership is its willingness to engage in dialogues with the workforce through various means.  Charlie’s recent briefing to NASA’s employees was one of his best yet (and I assert that with time, he will continue to improve).  The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters is engaging in regular “town hall” broadcasts in which ESMD leaders provide the latest news and answer questions from the audience.  One improvement I’d like to see is to avoid the message to “let go of the past.”  Charlie has said this on several occasions, and NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garvin has as well.  The problem with the message is that it runs against the natural grain of the technical workforce – the scientist and engineers – who are by their very nature predominantly fact finders.  Fact finding is inherently a past-oriented perspective, rooted in gathering existing knowledge and information to apply to current problems.  Because of this past orientation, “let go of the past” is a message translated by fact finders as “your talents are irrelevant to moving forward.”  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Instead, I encourage a re-crafting of the message targeting the fact finders, something along the following lines: “You can make a difference now by finding the best from our past successes that align with the direction we are going, and bring that to the conversation.”

One of the most critical forward actions for NASA involves step 2: unifying support around the need for change.  The biggest hurdle to overcome is due to one made by the leadership in the White House in how the space policy change was rolled out initially as a budget action.  The consequence is that the space policy conversation became framed primarily in terms of impacts to political constituencies – meaning workforce and politics.  As a result, the technical and budgetary factors were secondary to the conversation, and in many cases almost forgotten.  Case in point is the resurrection of Orion as a crew return vehicle from the International Space Station and as a starting piece for a deep space vehicle; as far as I can tell, the basis of the proposal is rooted in workforce and politics, and is lacking in details that justifies its technical merit as well as which area in the President’s 2011 budget will pay for it. Therefore, the challenge to the NASA leadership is to reframe the conversation involving all the merits on equal footing – technical, budgetary, workforce, and political – and involve all the key stakeholders in the conversation.  This is a work in progress, as evidenced by the briefings to the NASA workforce and the hearings on Capitol Hill.  It will take time to converge on the degree of change palatable and implementable given the realities of the factors and players involved, and I fully expect some refinements will be made to the President’s space policy before it is passed by Congress.

As for step 3, I have less insight here.  I understand that NASA has a number of internal “tiger teams” working on the details to create a plan that follows the President’s space policy.  I suspect that much of this work is pre-decisional in nature and is not being shared publically – or for that matter, shared with the NASA workforce at this time. At least the mode is correct for a realignment situation – more offense in the form of creating plans to enact the change as opposed to a defensive, “defend the past” approach.

The coming weeks and months will be enlightening.  The President’s space policy is not chiseled in stone, yet contains several compelling themes around which the conversation will focus.  The commercial sector will continue to forge ahead on the start-up business of providing routine access to low earth orbit, and NASA will continue to develop plans and reach out to key stakeholders to align all to the best way forward for human spaceflight.  I’ll continue to do my part, and watch the leadership in action, to drive us towards success.

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Driving Towards Success in Human Spaceflight