Uncertainty


“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”
–Vincent van Gogh

I’m taking a break from recent developments in space policy to share a bit more about what I’m doing currently for NASA’s human spaceflight endeavor.  It’s an insider’s view of my perspectives and experiences that perhaps will shed a teeny bit of light given today’s uncertainty and ambiguity on exactly what Government’s role will be in the new human spaceflight policy, if it is enacted by Congress.

At the beginning of the year I was charged with leading a team to develop a strategy for a large portion of mission operations in Houston.  If you don’t know, mission operations comprises Mission Control and several other facilities that support NASA’s human spaceflight programs – the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.  In a nutshell, mission operations plans human spaceflight missions, trains astronauts and flight controllers, then executes those missions – we call this “plan, train, fly.”  Last year, I led a team that defined a future strategy for the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, two of the facilities in mission operations dedicated mainly to training astronauts in extravehicular activity (EVA, or “spacewalks”) and crew systems on board the shuttle and International Space Station.  With the approval of that strategy last Fall, I tackled a much larger strategy with a new team – no less than the core “plan, train, fly” functions within mission operations for a future comprised of the International Space Station and the Constellation Program.

Then February 1 happened.

With the cancelation of the Constellation Program proposed in the President’s budget in 2011, and the implied space policy underlying the change, the future of mission operations went from being quite clear to something less clear.  Under the proposed space policy, the only clearly identifiable role for mission operations I see at present is in support of the International Space Station.  What is unclear to me is the role of mission operations in the other work defined in the 2011 budget, such as the proposed flagship technology demonstration programs designated for the Johnson Space Center in Houston.  With the lack of clarity, the team and I did our best to define at least the beginnings of a strategy for “plan, train, fly” that took into account the uncertainty and ambiguity of the near future.  In the end, the decision was made to “kick the can down the road” until Congress wrestles with the change in human spaceflight and approves a budget for 2011, which by association, will provide the near-term clarity of the future of mission operations that is lacking today.  The team was disbanded and I’m left here to ponder the future.

One of the items I ponder goes way beyond my own concerns of strategic planning for mission operations as I look at many of my colleagues who are supporting the last few shuttle missions with no defined job after that.  In mission operations alone, we’re talking about over a thousand people; between the end of shuttle and cancelation of Constellation, we’re talking in the neighborhood of 7,000 jobs being adversely impacted at the Johnson Space Center.  This is huge – I don’t think we’ve seen anything of this magnitude of uncertainty since the end of Apollo.  Additionally, I see a burning question: what roles will be needed when the flagship technology demonstration programs get underway?  Starting new programs is not like flipping on a lightswitch.  Between waiting for Congressional approval and funding, developing an overall plan, and executing the procurements necessary to perform the work, there will be a lag between the end of what we do now and the start of the new future.  Even though Houston’s economy has weathered the global economic slump better than most areas, it’s still a tough job market out there, and there appears to be no plan for Government-sponsored aid to displaced workers here like what is being offered in Florida.  Beyond that, my informal survey of former colleagues who left the space industry over the previous 20 years indicates that many have no intentions on returning to the space community in the future; I fully expect many, if not most, of my colleagues who can find work after shuttle retirement will do likewise.  These may represent key losses of critical talent that will be difficult, time-consuming and expensive to replace, if they can be at all.

So, with my team disbanded and all this “doom and gloom” for the workforce, what ray of sunshine do I see?  Put another way, what have I been doing to make a difference, now that I don’t have a team to lead anymore?

If the President’s implied space policy survives Congress mostly intact, we in mission operations are looking at a future noticeably different than the past.  On the part of the Government, I see greater emphasis being placed on planning, administering and overseeing new research and technology efforts designed towards pushing the boundaries of human spaceflight and less on routine mission execution.  Thus, one avenue I’ve been exploring is learning about analogous business models to what we do in mission operations.  One such model is along the lines of engineering services.  I can point to several examples in the commercial sector, such as IBM, which completely transformed itself into an engineering services firm from its original purpose built upon the design, manufacturing, and servicing of mainframes and desktop computers.  Another model is DELL, which outsourced its manufacturing piece while retaining the design and engineering pieces of the company.  Apple’s “App Store” concept of inviting third party firms to create the experience on its iPhone and iPad products is quite compelling and is being emulated by others, such as the DoD.  And so on.  I see tremendous potential for mission operations by approaching human spaceflight and its associated services in a different light, and imagine the possibilities for the flagship technology demonstration programs as well as other yet-to-be-identified opportunities.

Another avenue I’ve been exploring is learning more about government contracting, specifically in the realm of fixed price contracting and rapid procurements.  I learned a lot with last year’s experience and have been adding to that learning experience by talking with others with good and bad experiences on both fronts, realizing that once we get an approved budget and plan from Congress, we will have to move out rapidly on procuring the goods and services we need from the private sector.  If we are able to quickly buy goods and services under fixed price arrangements for known commoditized engineering services, I see tremendous upside in providing improved services at a lower cost.

Yet a third avenue I’ve been exploring is building and leading high performance teams.  Here I’ve been adding to my experience with the Kolbe Corporation to see if I can incorporate pieces into building high performance teams and optimizing performance of individuals.  I have several projects in discussion on these fronts, of which I’m sure one or more will pan out.  Building high performance teams will benefit future teams I lead as well as benefit other teams.

Now, it’s time for me to ask questions.  What uncertain and ambiguous situations have you faced, and what did you do?  I’d love to hear from you!

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Uncertainty