Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 2: Commerce

Commerce changes the fate and genius of nations.
–Thomas Gray


In Part 1, I covered Nationalism as a value proposition for human spaceflight, and pointed out the challenges that must be addressed to make it an enduring one in a changing world.  Today I continue the examination on value propositions for human spaceflight in Part 2: Commerce.


Reason 2: Commerce.  The development of transportation infrastructure in the United States and commerce are inextricably linked.  The need to transport goods quickly, tying into existing waterways and reducing or eliminating over-land routes that were slow or non-existent, drove development of the canal system in the northeast by private interests in the early nineteenth century.  The same drive is what led to the subsequent ascendency of the railroads, again achieved mainly through private investment with minimal federal guidance.  As for aviation, one doesn’t have to go very far to point out the successes of the Wright Brothers, funded from their own sweat equity, versus the comparatively expensive and unsuccessful Government-backed Langley efforts at “heavier than air” travel.  Subsequent aviation was fueled by the airmail contract of the 1920s and 1930s, then by passenger service started in the 1930s, then “took off” following World War II and exploded in the 1970s following deregulation.  The National Highway System leveraged off the development of the automobile to transport goods and peoples to a wide ranges of destinations, plus provide Americans with a degree of mobility not available with any other form of transportation.  (That is, until we get the flying cars of the Jetsons.)

Historically, NASA has not played a strong role in commerce.  Instead, NASA has had a long history of technological developments that have been licensed to commercial companies.  These “spinoffs” have made their way into numerous products that many of us take for granted today, and yet the impact of NASA on the economy is one that the Agency continues to struggle to communicate.  So in that regard, NASA and commerce have been at best a second-order effect.

Until now.

Continue reading “Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 2: Commerce”

Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 2: Commerce

Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 1: Nationalism

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
–George Bernard Shaw

Author’s note: I’ve been invited to give a talk to a local astronomy club on “the direction the nation is heading on human spaceflight policy and where we ought to go.”  As you are aware if you are a regular reader of LeadingSpace, I’ve touched previously upon matters of vision (or lack thereof), leadership (or lack thereof), and the value equation as they pertain to human spaceflight.  This, in concert with ideas from the series written by Mary Lynne Dittmar on “An enduring value proposition for NASA human spaceflight” on The Space Review, led to the framework for this topic.  You’re going to get an advanced screening below, and I welcome your feedback in the comments area.  Because of the length, I am breaking into multiple parts.  Part 1 is below.

In making the case for the direction of human spaceflight, we’ve seen numerous attempts at articulating a vision directly, such as the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, or indirectly with the President’s fiscal year 2011 budget release a year ago and his subsequent speech at the Kennedy Space Center.  Each of these is a sound attempt at providing a basis of sorts for our domestic human spaceflight program, yet both seem to fail in a very fundamental way:  none truly address the why question.  The recent rhetoric from Washington that “there is a plan” also falls short of addressing the perception that with the end of the space shuttle program, human spaceflight is also over for the United States.

So, let’s advance the dialogue on this topic by addressing one simple question:  Why pursue a human spaceflight endeavor?

Continue reading “Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 1: Nationalism”

Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 1: Nationalism

A Pet Peeve

“The sun has already set on the days we made those choices. We must
concentrate on what we can do tomorrow; we can’t relive yesterday.”

–Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander in “Blood of the Fold” by Terry Goodkind 

As part of my commute to and from the office each day, I listen to audiobooks.  This morning, I wasn’t paying too close attention to the story, instead focusing on traffic.  (You’re glad to hear that, I’m sure.)  All of a sudden, I heard the above phrase, cutting through my focus on traffic and ringing as pure as a crystal bell.

In that moment of crystal clarity, a question I’ve heard repeatedly over the last 18 months came to mind: “Who’s fault is it that we have a gap in US domestic access to low Earth orbit?”

I don’t need to sketch the story here: you know it.  But I will anyway to make a point. Some point to the current Administration as the source of blame.  Others point to the previous Administration.  Of course, which way one argues this point is dependent upon a variety of political agendas, creative selection of facts, or whatever.
My pet peeve concerns the back and forth that continues to this day on the blame game.

My position: Who cares?  The decision was made for a number of reasons; more importantly, the decision was made a long time ago and is behind us.  Reality is here, now.  The gap is upon us.  If we intend on continuing to be a leader in space exploration, it’s time to tackle some hard questions such as these:

  • Why do we choose to explore space?
  • How can we best marshall the resources in a fiscally-responsible manner to develop and operate the infrastructure and systems needed?

Until we are of a common mind on the answers to these questions and others, we will continue to be at odds, and the bickering will continue.  As will the gap.

Clearly, NASA needs to work hard(er) with the Hill and White House on the best way forward for the Agency, even if that means tackling the sticking points between Executive policy and Congressional authorization.  The emerging space sector has the daunting task of delivering on some very high expectations while navigating the shifting maze of Government regulations, intellectual property rights, indemnification, contractual mechanisms, and so on.  Together, the public and private sectors need to explore and establish the kinds of partnerships that will bring greater value than if each were to go it alone.

We can’t move on if too many of us insist in living in the past and continuing to play the blame game.  The sun has already set on the day we made the choice to retire the shuttle. We must concentrate on what we can do for tomorrow.

Join me in the coming weeks as I share some insights into what I’m doing for tomorrow in my small corner.  I’ll be learning as I go along, and I hope you do too.
Text © 2011 Joe Williams
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/konradlew
A Pet Peeve

Thinking Different?

Continuing to believe the same thing, even in the face of new evidence to the contrary, is the definition of insanity – except in politics where it’s called leadership.
–Scott Adams.

Recently, word leaked out that the Agency is preparing to announce a configuration of the next-generation NASA launch vehicle that is heavily derived from the retiring Space Shuttle, rumored for announcement near July 8 – the scheduled launch date for the final Space Shuttle mission.  If true, then we will see a proposal in keeping to the letter-of-the-law outlined in Sec. 302 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.  Yet it is not without some trepidation that I view these developments.  Why?

The concepts behind a shuttle-derived solution are outlined later in Sec. 302 of the Act:

“[T]he Administrator shall, to the extent practicable, extend or modify existing vehicle development and associated contracts necessary to meet the [Space Launch System] requirements…”

“The Administrator shall ensure critical skills and capabilities are retained, modified, and developed, as appropriate, in areas related to solid and liquid engines, large diameter fuel tanks, rocket propulsion, and other ground test capabilities for an effective transition to the follow-on Space Launch System.”

What do I see as the foundation of the Act?

It preserves the status quo.  Using existing contracting vehicles and infrastructure preserves the status quo.  A number of the contracts awarded for Constellation work could be modified or restructured into what the Agency will propose in a few weeks.  That keeps several large aerospace firms engaged in current work.

It is the path of least resistance.  Little to no organizational changes in the Agency are needed, and traditional roles are preserved.  Launches will continue to be supported by the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, vehicle development by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, engine testing by the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and astronaut training and mission operations here in Houston at the Johnson Space Center.  Therefore, the leadership doesn’t need to tackle hard issues about evolving roles of Centers, re-vectoring workforce skills, or divesting dated approaches and infrastructure.

Keeping in mind that the Act was authored in the Senate and approved by the House, it should be no surprise that the degree of change is small; after all, Congress is a friction-maximizing device, slow to change and, where it does change, tends to deal with transactional change.  The concern I have is that a business-as-usual approach to implement the Act ignores the reality of the situation we face fiscally and politically.

The Budget. NASA’s budget in current dollars has remained flat since 2000, averaging around $17.9 billion in today’s dollars.  The percentage of NASA’s budget dedicated to human spaceflight has fluctuated over the years, and and is slated to consume a little less than half of that budget. Although other parts of the NASA budget can (and have been) diverted to support a human spaceflight development program, other areas are facing challenges, too, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Politics. From a political standpoint, the Agency leadership and Congress appear to be at loggerheads. Between the questioning of commitment to the law and the threat of a supoena, it seems there is quite a bit of disfunction between the Agency and Congress.  This is somewhat reminiscent of a little over 20 years ago, when another Administration proposed a follow-up to the shuttle called the Space Exploration Initiative, intended to land humans on Mars eventually.  In this case, the disfunction was between the Agency and the White House instead of Congress, and eventually the Space Exploration Initiative was abandoned for the the “faster, better, cheaper” approach of the mid-1990’s.

In looking at the realities of the situation, what is to prevent history from repeating itself? We could be right here again in 2013 or 2017 with the next change in Administrations.

What is needed is the kind of leadership not afraid of embracing change, tacking the sacred cows, and seeking value with the greatest return on the American taxpayer dollar.  What is needed is recognition by the leadership that business-as-usual will not work and that NASA’s human spaceflight is in a renewal cycle.  What is needed is for the leadership to work together for the common goals and objectives outlined in the introductions of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and the NASA Strategic Plan 2011.

What is needed is to think different.

Text © 2011 Joe Williams

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/Stockphoto4u

Thinking Different?

Debating Change in Human Spaceflight

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
–Mahatma Gandhi


Monday night’s debates between Republican hopefuls for President actually saw human spaceflight policy make a brief appearance. Newt Gingrich said the most on the topic, pushing for greater privatization consistent with his earlier remarks on the topic. Tim Pawlenty said less, calling for refocusing in light of the federal budget challenges, and little else. Mitt Romney made a puzzling tangential reference with partisan overtones, and the rest said nothing. (At least two of the hopefuls ventured a position.)

Let’s look at what the two stated positions have in common – greater privatization and refocusing – in terms of leading successful change. The type of change that is common with the two positions is transitional change.

In the case of greater privatization, the role of Government in human spaceflight transitions from one role to another. (Gingrich didn’t address this aspect.) Let’s assume for a minute an end state exists for the Government role in human spaceflight. For the change to be successful, modifications are needed to all the following: NASA’s organizational structure, the existing systems of policies and procedures in place for human spaceflight, and the individual skills and abilities needed to make the end state a reality. Furthermore, this type of change presses the need for a reformulation of NASA’s mission, strategy, and organizational culture.

A call for refocusing is another way of stating the need to getting back to basics: to acquire and retain those features with the greatest value, and to let go of those features that are of little to no value. In business models, this is a renewal cycle. In the case of NASA, that would mean dealing with deeply ingrained cultural norms that no longer add value, for convincing the workforce that change is needed, for restructuring the top team, for identifying and valuing the pockets of strength within the Agency, and for defining what constitutes success at all levels, from the individual level on up.

It’s quite easy to call for modifications and refinements of the sort I call out above; it’s a whole different matter to demonstrate the leadership and commitment to get meaningful results. The first difficulty is overcoming the culture of change driven by the bureaucracy inside the Beltway, which is predisposed towards transactional change and maintaining the status quo. Transactional change, as I’ve described before, is characterized by a lower degree of engagement by the leadership, one that is predominated by little to no alterations to organizational structures, policies and procedures, or skills and abilities needed. As in a monetary transaction, it’s swapping one thing for another. It’s easier to do and can be successful when all we are seeking is minor course corrections for sustaining a successful situation.

Yet as I point out, both greater privatization and refocusing call for fundamental adjustments that cannot be achieved through a series of transactional changes of the type that constitute “business-as-usual” inside the Beltway. It requires a different kind of leadership, one willing to tackle the sacred cows as well as define the larger purpose to get the grassroots support necessary to buy into the change and to make the change a reality.

What do you think?

Text © 2011 Joe Williams
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/Kronick

Debating Change in Human Spaceflight

Sacred Cows

“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.”
–Abbie Hoffman

For any individual, team, or organization facing change, one of the most difficult things to deal with are sacred cows.  You know what I mean – they are the ones you see grazing on your valuable grass and in your eyes contribute nothing but noisy moos, greenhouse gasses and poop.  Yet for whatever reason they are there and are often defended by the establishment.  Why?

I have a few perspectives, looking at the sacred cows grazing around me:

Vested interest in the status quo.  Yeah, there may have been a good reason for that sacred cow before it became a sacred cow, yet times have changed.  Oftentimes the problem is that the leadership may be so invested or emotionally attached to the sacred cow that they cannot look at it objectively for what it is.

Over-systematizing.  As organizations evolve, they develop systems and procedures, then with time add more systems and procedures without divesting those older procedures and systems.  By virtue of inertia, those older procedures and systems become sacred cows.

Over-standardizing.  Another sign of the cow is when an organization embraces standards and the creation of more standards, few of which are tied to meaningful, measurable performance.  For some teams, the act of defining standards is the raison d’etre of that team, and for whatever reason that function is embraced by management.  I see this phenomenon all the time.

Now that I’ve given you perspectives on types of sacred cows I encounter, here is a game plan for getting them off the grass.

Use the value equation.  As I’ve written before, the value equation defines the relationship between benefit and cost: value = benefit – cost.  By definition, sacred cows provide negative value: the cost outweighs the benefit.  One sure-fire way to shoo those sacred cows out of your pasture is to shine light on them in terms of the value equation.  Again, this can be challenging because of the subjective, emotional attachment that is placed on these sacred cows, and often the establishment will cite perceived benefits that attempt to get at a positive value relationship.  Stick to your guns and ask for objective, relevant, and extant evidence of benefit that offsets the cost of the care and feeding of the sacred cow.

Define a sense of urgency.  John Kotter’s eight steps for leading change has, as step number one, defining a sense of urgency.  With regards to getting rid of sacred cows, there must be a sense of urgency built around taking action, to getting those sacred cows out of your pasture.  This is one of the most important steps that enlightened leadership can take – define the sense of urgency to take action, then move ahead deliberately and quickly to the other seven steps.  If there is no sense of urgency around doing something about the sacred cows, nothing will happen.

Do you have sacred cows around you? What has worked for you to shoo them out of your pasture?

Text © Joe Williams 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

Sacred Cows

Coming Face-to-Face with Uncertainty

“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!” –Douglas Adams.


If the last few weeks have taught me anything, it is how hard it is to lead change in the public sector in a time of uncertainty.

Part of the purpose of LeadingSpace is to serve as a platform from which I can share the things that work well for me, as well as the things that don’t, with building and leading high performance teams at NASA that engage in strategic thinking.  I’m jazzed by learning something new that I can bring to bear, and over the time that I’ve been engaged in this topic I’ve learned and applied a lot of great ideas and concepts.  What I’m finding is the reality that it’s a lot harder than it looks.

Such is the case when planning a future path for my corner of the human space flight arena.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or absolutely don’t care about what happens in Washington, DC, you are aware that recently Congress averted a shutdown of the federal government by passing an eleventh-hour agreement to fund the government for the rest of the current fiscal year, ending on September 30.  For human spaceflight, this meant providing some measure of funding commensurate with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which defines Congressional law for how the President’s space policy changes proposed in 2010 are to be enacted.  Simply put, this action is to terminate the Constellation Program that was intended as NASA’s next major human spaceflight effort to push beyond low Earth orbit, and instead redirects that activity into a new yet-to-be-fully-defined channel along with helping to nurture an emerging commercial space sector for providing cheaper access to low Earth orbit for cargo and people – NASA astronauts included.

The difficulty is that there are some fundamental disagreements between the White House and Congress concerning the relative priority and purpose of the new Government-provided programs (called the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV, and the Space Launch System, or SLS) versus providing nurturing to the emerging commercial space sector.  My rather oversimplified take is that the White House places greater emphasis on the commercial side, whereas Congress is placing greater emphasis on the Government program side.  I see NASA as caught in the middle.  This disparity in priority was not resolved with the passage of the continuing resolution for this year, and thus I bet it will be the hot button topic in the space arena when appropriations hearings for the next fiscal year get underway soon.   (That is, if Congress will focus on that instead of the retirement homes for the Shuttle orbiters.)  Therefore, one degree of uncertainty is how the relative priority between Government-provided systems and commercial systems will play out between the White House and Congress.

Another degree of uncertainty concerns schedules.  What is the closest thing to a definite is the end of the Shuttle program and near-term US-provided access to space for humans, once the remaining two shuttle missions have flown.  STS-134 is scheduled for launch next week, and STS-135 is scheduled for this summer.  The Authorization Act calls for NASA to provide its human transportation capability no later than 2016; there is some measure of doubt that that will be possible, given the technical challenges and fiscal realities that likely await us, and frankly given our demonstrated track record.  The commercial side is touting capabilities as soon as 2013.  However, from what I know the commercial providers under agreement to demonstrate cargo delivery to the International Space Station (a logical precursor to delivering humans) are behind schedule.  Not that being behind is necessarily bad (since commercial advocates will enthusiastically point out that schedule slips are endemic at NASA); however, one could be justified in saying that the 2013 date is uncertain given demonstrated performance so far on the cargo side.  Therefore, another degree of uncertainty is the timing of the next human spaceflight system, whether Government-provided or commercial, and when it will ready to transport humans into space.

This brings me to my knothole of human spaceflight: planning for how mission operations in Houston (home of Mission Control, astronaut training, and mission planning for NASA’s human spaceflight programs) will acquire the goods and services it needs to fulfill its role.  A year ago, not long after the White House signaled its intended changes in human spaceflight policy, I saw as an opportunity to build a strategy based upon a combination direction: basically, to continue to support NASA’s current and future human spaceflight programs while providing help to the emerging commercial space sector.  Defining a direction is a key component to building a strategy.  It goes hand-in-hand with having a clear vision and guiding principles for the organization, having a clear way of articulating the value propositions of the organization, and understanding the strategic priorities of the organization.  However, as I already covered there is still some amount of uncertainty around both the future Government systems as well as the commercial systems themselves – whether they will exist as proposed at all, or if one or the other might get starved into non-existence or outright canceled in the near future.  There is also the relative priority problem I mentioned earlier, which further exacerbates the situation.

I’m left in a quandary regarding how to push forward in the face of uncertainty.  I wonder if those in the private sector who are engaged in strategic thinking face similar or the same kinds of obstacles like I described, or if this is a unique feature of the public sector.  I can envision leaders in the private sector saying, “Uncertainty, bah.  Here is the path we choose, and we will forge ahead.”  Yet I feel I’m somewhat less able to do that, due to being beholden in part to outcomes from a political consideration that is still in flux.

Maybe the answer is obvious, and it will either come to me in time; or perhaps one of my thousands of patrons to LeadingSpace can see the way to go.  (OK, I’m deluding myself with the number – but not the intent.)

What would you do?


Text © Joe Williams 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

Coming Face-to-Face with Uncertainty