“Wartime Leadership” in Human Spaceflight


“Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
–Winston Churchill

About a year ago I read a blog post from Ben Horowitz, cofounder and General Partner of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, entitled “Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO.”  The basic idea proposed by Horowitz is that an organization in peacetime has a large advantage versus the competition in its core market, and an organization in wartime is fending off an imminent existential threat; in both cases, there is a best-suited style of leadership for each.  I’ve thought repeatedly about the topic since I first read the post, and wonder: is the key challenge we face in moving ahead in human spaceflight one of having the wrong kind of political and executive leadership in place right now?

Because my focus is on Government-led human spaceflight, I’ll recast the peacetime/wartime definitions of Horowitz into ones more appropriate for the public sector.  They are:

  • Peacetime – public sector organization receives broad policy and funding support from stakeholders, and delivers unquestioned value to the public.
  • Wartime – public sector organization is fending off an immediate threat in terms of policy and/or funding support, or whose relevance to the public is openly questioned.

With these definitions, Government-led human spaceflight is in wartime.  Does that mean that Government should “go to war” against the perceived threats?  Absolutely.

The problem is in defining “the perceived threats.”  As I see it, the perceived threat is not the emerging commercial space sector.  The public sector is not in competition against the private sector for the right of providing access to low Earth orbit, despite the desire of certain entrenched interests to cast it as such.  In fact, the public sector is obligated to assist the private sector, both as a matter of policy (The National Space Policy of 2010) and of law (The NASA Authorization Act of 2010).  NASA has embraced this aspect of commercial development with its cargo resupply services contracts and ongoing Space Act Agreements for the development of a commercial crew transportation service.

Where I see the threats are in those areas exactly stated in the definition: policy and funding.  I believe where the policy and funding situation leads to a wartime setting is in the implementation details, by the attempt to recreate the glories of the past (first under the Constellation Program, now under the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System) instead of building a sustainable space architecture.  My fear is that the current policy implementation is unlikely to be sustainable under reasonable projections of future budget allocations, between the threats of sequestration and the growing demands of mandatory spending on the federal budget.  If my fears are true, the President and the Congress will need to make a hard choice between allocating funding to match the policy implementation (unlikely), or directing changes in the policy implementation (more likely).

Such a demand bucks against the typical “peacetime” trend of setting policy and budgets based upon historical precedent, usually through slight modifications to existing policy or adjusting the budget slightly to match inflation, and using standard approaches (read “pork-barrel” politics) to influence implementation.  Such has been the trend in human spaceflight for decades.

No, it takes a different kind of leadership to affect major changes in policy and/or funding.  Most of the characteristics that Mr. Horowitz identifies for the wartime leaderhip are tough sells for the public sector, yet I see it as the spirit identified by the list rather than the actual characteristics that define the kind of leadership needed right now in human spaceflight: hands-on, detail oriented, quick-acting, single-minded, and focused on what it takes to win.

(As for relevancy, I made a case last year for defining the reasons for human spaceflight in terms of five value propositions.  Rather than rehash that examination, I offer that relevancy follows from rational conversations around those VPs.)

I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to decide if the political and executive leadership fits these qualities, or not.  There is an election later this year, which affords us the opportunity to show with our votes whether we believe our political and executive leadership capable of wartime execution with regards to human spaceflight, or not.

You decide.

Text © 2012, Joe Williams.  All rights reserved.
Photo credit: “Construction 09 4” by Andy Brooks via FotoPlanet, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

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“Wartime Leadership” in Human Spaceflight