SLS and Transactional Change

“Life is all about timing… the unreachable becomes reachable, the unavailable become available, the unattainable… attainable. Have the patience, wait it out It’s all about timing.”
–Stacey Charter 

After several months of waiting, the Space Launch System was unveiled last week.  The Space Launch System, or SLS, will be designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as important cargo, equipment and science experiments to Earth’s orbit and destinations beyond.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said, “This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world.”

I’ve watched the unfolding of the SLS saga through the leadership lens I’ve been grinding over the last few years.  On one hand, I’m more than ready to do my part to push the boundaries of human exploration of space to new destinations.  However, it is not without some reservation that I view the current situation.  Here’s why.

From a change standpoint, the SLS as a successor to the Shuttle and Constellation programs represents a transactional change: the one-for-one swapping out of one large human spaceflight program for another.  From a leadership standpoint, the attractive aspects of pursuing a transactional change are that little to no modifications are needed to NASA’s organizational structure, to the existing system of policies and procedures, or to the individual skills and abilities needed to implement the change.  It’s an easier form of change to pursue, allowing the leadership to “ride” the status quo for the most part.  Sure, a new Program office will be created, existing contracts modified, new contracts awarded, and the current workforce redistributed.  Yet at the heart of it, the transactional change represented by the SLS is built upon a fundamental assumption: the outcome is simple and predictable, and using a big rocket program owned and operated by the Government will maintain the current state of human spaceflight.

I am somewhat concerned with the validity of this fundamental assumption.  In my view, the greatest destabilizing force to the predictability assumption is budgetary, as external fiscal pressures squeeze the availability of discretionary spending, and intra-Agency priorities compete internally for scarcer and scarcer resources.  We’ve already experienced that in recent years with the reallocation of funding inside NASA when Constellation was underfunded by the President and the Congress, and recent hints at a similar cannibalizing to save the James Webb Space Telescope do not help the fiscal situation.  The second destabilizing force is the shifting national priorities that will arise as we progress from a mono-polar world, where the United States is the lone superpower, to the rapidly rising multi-polar world where the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – pursue their respective space interests.

With all that said, the SLS is the course charted by the President, the Congress, and NASA.  I have my concerns, yet those concerns do not prevent me from continuing to do my part to be a good steward of the American taxpayer’s dollars.  In my corner of the world, I will continue to find ways to optimize our investments in human spaceflight operations while building new partnerships with the emerging commercial space sector, to increase the likelihood of the success of human spaceflight in a fiscally responsible manner.

Text © 2011, Joe Williams.  All rights reserved.
Photo credit: NASA

SLS and Transactional Change