The Crisis Cycle

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters.  One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”
–John F. Kennedy.

Last week I read a guest blog on written by former NASA chief historian Roger Launius with a rather provocative lead-in: “Human Spaceflight on the Brink of Extinction?” The piece goes on to draw some parallels to today’s situation in human spaceflight with that faced in 1967 by another key part of NASA – the space science community – in putting together a controversial new major planetary exploration program. “The crisis in X” is the theme of the piece, and how lessons learned from the 1967 space science crisis might be important indicators on how to move forward today in human spaceflight.  Rather than debate the merits of applicability of the 1967 experience (because personally, I believe the experience in 1993 of the morphing of the Space Station Freedom program into today’s International Space Station program is a closer analogue to today’s situation), I’d like to focus on that key word – crisis.  I wondered: are we really facing a crisis today in human spaceflight?  What exactly is a crisis, and what actions should we take if we are in a crisis?

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The Crisis Cycle

Change, Contracts, and Complexity

“Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”
–Alan Perlis.

Recently I’ve been drawn to conversations concerning change implied by the President’s 2011 budget for NASA’s human spaceflight, versus the rollback of some of those changes embodied in the NASA Authorization bills in work by the Senate and House.  Depending on where you sit, you can point out things to like and things to hate, whether you are an advocate for the status quo, a supporter of New Space, or whatever.  Other conversations have concerned contract type – specifically, fixed price versus cost reimbursable – and their potential use once we get through appropriations and put together an actionable plan to execute the human spaceflight policy.  A common theme has reoccurred in all those conversations: complexity.  So, my observations today are about change, contracts, and complexity; how do they relate, and what can we do to deliver an affordable and sustainable human presence in space?

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Change, Contracts, and Complexity

The Blue-Sky Boys

“We choose to go to the moon.  We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”
–President John F. Kennedy

Last night I attended a presentation of The Blue-Sky Boys at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA.  (If you’ve never been to the Barter Theatre, you need to make it a destination the next time you’re in southwestern Virginia–it’s a real treat.)  To tell the story behind The Blue-Sky Boys, I’ll use the words of director Nicholas Piper, which started with the above quote from JFK.

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly fifty years since President Kennedy issued this challenge.  These words could be delivered today and be just as relevant.

What a bold, courageous, impossible challenge that was.  We were in a race for the moon against the Russians.  In fact, if the Russians hadn’t put a man in space first, we probably would have never gotten to the moon in that decade.  We needed that spark, that challenge, to ignite our efforts.

In retrospect, the point wasn’t to get to the moon.  The point was to challenge ourselves–to stretch our imaginations, to have faith that with hard work, courage, creativity, teamwork and persistence, the impossible could become possible.

The ’60’s were a time of great upheaval–a year after JFK gave this speech, he would be assassinated.  His brother, Robert, would be killed five years later, and so would Martin Luther King, Jr.  We were embroiled in an unpopular war and our country was divided.  We needed hope.  We needed something to remind us how great we could be.  Sound familiar?

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The Blue-Sky Boys