NASA: What to do after “Mission Accomplished”?
It’s always interesting to watch the evolution of organizations especially when the primary mission for which they were created has been substantially accomplished.
One such organization is NASA
There are a couple of easy options to consider after the main event (Landing a man on the moon)
- Identify a new compelling vision and mission for the organization consistent with external realities and priorities
- Invent “busy work” to justify the organization status quo
- Face the harsh reality that the organization is adrift and find a fresh perspective absent #1 above and when #2 becomes obvious
It seems we might have examples of the second and third option – lacking a new compelling vision and mission for NASA
Mars the Hard Way
In recent weeks, NASA has put forth two remarkable new plans for its proposed next major initiatives. Both bear careful examination.
As the centerpiece for its future human spaceflight program, NASA proposes to build another space station, this one located not in low Earth orbit but at the L2 Lagrange point just above the far side of the Moon. This plan is indeed remarkable in as much as an L2 space station would serve no useful purpose whatsoever. We don’t need an L2 space station to go back to the Moon. We don’t need an L2 space station to go to near-Earth asteroids. We don’t need an L2 space station to go to Mars. We don’t need an L2 space station for anything.
The other initiative is a new plan for Mars sample return, which is now held to be the primary mission of the robotic Mars exploration program. This plan is remarkable for its unprecedented and utterly unnecessary complexity.
Unfortunately, however, rather than propose the most cost-effective plan for a Mars sample return mission, NASA has now set forth the most convoluted, riskiest, costliest approach ever conceived.
Clearly, though, the group that drifted into it was attempting to make the Mars sample return mission provide an apparent excuse for the existence for an assortment of other NASA hobbyhorses. For example, we note that it makes use of the LaGrange point space station. But this does not help the Mars sample return mission, which could much more simply just return the samples to Earth, where far better lab facilities are available than could ever be installed at L2. Rather, by invoking the L2 station as a critical element of the mission plan, NASA is inserting a toll both blocking the way to the accomplishment of the sample return, while radically increasing mission and program cost, schedule and risk and decreasing science return. The same can be said for requiring the use of electric propulsion, a technology program that was inserted into the human Mars mission critical path based on an unsupportable claim by a well-placed advocate that it could speed up interplanetary transits, and that now needs some alternative rationale.
This planning methodology is equivalent to that of a shopaholic couple who ask an architect to design their dream house but insist that he include in his design as critical components every whimsical piece of random junk they have ever bought in the past and piled up in their back yard, in order to make those purchases appear rational after the fact. By capitulating to this kind of thinking, the NASA leadership has transformed Mars sample return from a mission into a “vision.”
Read the rest of the article – http://www.spacenews.com/article/mars-the-hard-way
The report from the National Academies
In late 2011, the Congress directed the NASA Office of Inspector General to commission a “comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management.” This report has now been published and is available to the public. Here is an excerpt:
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is at a transitional point in its history and is facing a set of circumstances that it has not faced in combination before. The agency’s budget, although level-funded in constant-year dollars, is under considerable stress, servicing increasingly expensive missions and a large, aging infrastructure established at the height of the Apollo program.
Other than the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars, there is no strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program, which is arguably the centerpiece of NASA’s spectrum of mission areas. The lack of national consensus on NASA’s most publicly visible mission, along with out-year budget uncertainty, has resulted in the lack of strategic focus necessary for national agencies operating in today’s budgetary reality. As a result, NASA’s distribution of resources may be out of sync with what it can achieve relative to what it has been asked to do…
Although gaps in U.S. human spaceflight capability have existed in the past, several other factors, in combination, make this a unique period for NASA. These include a lack of consensus on the next steps in the development of human spaceflight, increasing financial pressures, an aging infrastructure, and the emergence of additional space-capable nations—some friendly, some potentially unfriendly….
These problems are not primarily of NASA’s doing, but the agency could craft a better response to the uncertainty, for example, by developing a strategic plan that includes clear priorities and a transparent budget allocation process. A better response would improve NASA’s ability to navigate future obstacles and uncertainties. An effective agency response is vital, because at a time when the strategic importance of space is rising and the capabilities of other spacefaring nations are increasing, U.S. leadership is faltering….
You can read the full report along with recommendations here – http://frrl.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/nasa_congressreport.pdf
Just about every organization faces the challenge of redefining itself in a new context. When you read NASA’s complex plan for Mars you can see an organization struggling. It’s better for an organization to face reality and accept that it has a problem (no matter how painful) rather than invent rude-goldberg type space missions to justify existing and legacy infrastructure, personnel, and budgets.
But being proactive about these issues and knowing when you need to re/invent the organization is what leadership is all about, right? For NASA, does that thought leadership come from inside the organization or do we need to wait for someone outside the organization to define NASA’s next compelling mission as bold as the moon landing?
If the next compelling vision has to come from outside the organization then what does that say about the creativity, innovation, vitality, and influence of the organization? What does it say about the people in the organization and how it operates? How many public corporations ask ”outsiders” to develop a strategic plan for their business? None! That’s a senior leadership responsibility. If NASA itself can’t come up with a compelling vision that captures the national interest – if it has to rely on outsiders to show it where to go - then it seems to me an essential element of NASA leadership (esp. thought-leadership & vision) is missing.
To “give” or impose on NASA a new mission and strategic plan is to treat the symptom and not the cause of some of NASA’s problems post “Mission Accomplished”.
Should the “will of the people” guide NASA? read