Commercial Space and Transitional Change

Change your thoughts and you change your world.
–Norman Vincent Peale



Today I want to share some of my personal thoughts concerning commercial space.

For those of you who don’t know what I mean by “commercial space”, let me give you some background.  A year ago this month, the President unveiled a fundamental change in how the United States would access low earth orbit.  Gone will be Government-based systems such as the Space Shuttle and its successor in the Constellation Program.  Instead, we will rely upon the free market and the commercial sector to provide routine, safe, low-cost access to low earth orbit, despite the fact that the latter is not in existence today and likely will not be for a few years.  In the interim, we’ll rely upon Russia and its Soyuz system to ferry astronauts to and from low earth orbit until our commercial efforts go online in a few years.

Despite the challenges, both technologically and political, I’ve been an advocate of the building of partnerships between NASA and commercial space for access to low earth orbit.  In fact, building partnerships between my organization within NASA and the commercial sector was one of the strategic directions I took forward to my management for moving Mission Control, astronaut training, and mission planning services for human spaceflight into the future. Let me share with you my philosophy as to why I feel strongly about this.

For me to fully embrace the space policy set forth by the President, and specifically the part of using commercial carriers to get astronauts to and from low earth orbit, it has to be more than a transactional change, which would be simply swapping out Government-owned systems for commercial systems to do essentially the exact same thing we’ve been doing for umpteen years with Government systems such as the shuttle.  If commercial systems are to be successful in the long run, the degree of change has to be more than that; the change has to be at least transitional to “something else”, and perhaps even transformational in ways we can’t imagine today.

What do I mean by “transactional” and “transitional” change?

Transactional change is simple in scope with predictable outcomes.  On the spectrum of change, it’s the easiest.  To lead this kind of change, the level of investment needed by the leadership and organizations involved is fairly low.  Typically, little to no modification is needed to the organizational structure, the existing system of policies and procedures, and the individual skills and abilities needed to implement the change.  Much as in a monetary transaction, a transactional change does not alter the fundamental form, fit or function of the components.

So, let me pick on the transactional change thing for a minute.  Because transactional change is simple in scope and complexity, and we can reasonably predict the outcome, I don’t believe the spirit of US space policy is transactional when replacing Government with commercial.  However, much of what I read in the blogosphere talks about it in these terms, so much so that I find it frustrating.  My intuition tells me that if Government couldn’t develop a sustainable system for access to low earth orbit to support Government missions, then how in the world will commercial do it if all it is doing is servicing the Government mission?  (This whole matter gets complicated by the involvement of Congress, which almost always deals in transactional change.  After all, as I was told in a Congressional Operations class, Congress is a “friction-maximizing device.”)

Transitional change is much deeper than transaction change.  Either the scope is huge and complexity is high with the outcome being reasonably predictable, or the scope is simple and complexity is low with the outcome being unpredictable. To lead this kind of change, the level of leadership and organizational investment needed is higher than that for transactional change.  For the change to be successful, modifications are needed to the organizational structure, the existing systems of policies and procedures, and the individual skills and abilities needed to implement the change.  Furthermore, this type of change touches upon and raises an examination and refinement of mission, strategy, and organizational culture. This kind of change is harder to do.

So, call it faith, or intuition, or whatever.  As I see it, it doesn’t matter whether the number of firms engaged in commercial space is large or small; for the transitional change to be successful, we (NASA) need to engage with commercial space to help with the complex integration of multi-tiered companies, or to provide mission assurance to commercial companies that don’t fully realize the nature of the complexity of getting to low earth orbit safely and successfully.  (After all, it is “rocket science”).

A few months ago I met with a firm that is positioning itself as a business to provide training services for pilots and passengers on commercial systems.  The CEO of the company said he’s talked to a number of commercial space firms on the need to address this kind of training once their respective systems go operational.  Whether this particular company is viable or not is not as important in my mind as is the potential for the creation of other commercial firms selling products and services to other commercial firms.  What else might there be besides training services?  What is the potential market for services for human spaceflight, selling products and services to others?  Isn’t that the definition of building a robust commercial market for human spaceflight?

When I step back and consider where we are, I think of the possibilities offered by having the commercial sector handle routine access to low earth orbit (and make a profit along the way), allowing Government to focus on the risky edges of pushing the boundaries of human exploration of space.  This is by no means an easy endeavor: the commercial sector might fail in building a sustainable business model for access to low earth orbit, or the American people might decide that human space exploration is not a national priority.  Yet I don’t see either happening.  I believe the future of human space exploration is wrapped up in a partnership of the best of entrepreneurial and Government efforts.  The challenge is ours to make the future we desire.

Text © Joe Williams 2011

Commercial Space and Transitional Change