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NASA: What to do after “Mission Accomplished”?

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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)

  1. Identify a new compelling vision and mission for the organization consistent with external realities and priorities
  2. Invent “busy work” to justify the organization status quo
  3. 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 –

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 –

The Take

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”.

Read More

Reviews Agree On Need For New NASA Strategic Plan
Expert Panel: NASA seems lost in space, needs goal

Should the “will of the people” guide NASA?  read

Written by frrl

December 5, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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2 Responses

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  1. Very good question: should NASA’s primary goals come from the inside or the outside?

    Originally it was structured to solve a goal given to it from the outside. That worked very well because as any engineer will tell you, building to spec is like walking on water: it’s a lot easier if its frozen. That problem-solving structure remains in place today. But after Apollo if it was given any goals at all, they changed too quickly: Go to Mars, no go to an asteroid, no go back to the moon, no focus on a space station, no abandon the space station; go to the planets, no turn off the probes we have; make a reusable space plane, no use expendable rockets, make your own booster, no farm it out; etc etc. Shame on us for not giving it a goal and sticking to it.

    So does this mean NASA should now make, and sell, its own goals? Is that appropriate for a government agency that should be serving the will of the people? The FCC is told to organize spectrum resources; NIH is told to find cures for disease; CDC is told to track pathogens; NIST is told to refine fundamental principles and constants. And so that’s what they do, rather well in fact. They don’t set their own goals. Neither should NASA. If we have no goals for NASA, we should shut it down.

    Elwood Downey, WB0OEW

    December 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    • The world has changed for NASA – This is what the congressional reports says. The report says that they don’t have a compelling (new) mission, vision, or strategic goals. So that’s a statement of the problem

      One solution is for the organization to adapt from the inside. But, if NASA was built significantly around engineeing problem-solving then that is one sort of people. Those may not be the people that are going to do strategic planning (its not a technical engineering problem to solve). So maybe NASA needs a different configuration of people.

      To tell a group or organization to “take responsibility” or to “take ownership” sometimes might be enough. But if eveyone in NASA is operating under the tacit assumption that they “are serving at the will of the people’ then they will stand around and wait for someone to tell them what to do.

      NASA should be filled with people with expertise, vision, and a sense of what-to-do-next. To think that “an ordinary citizen” or a collection of same with little background in science should set the goals for NASA, to me, seems odd. Let’s just get everyone who was ever on the Jerry Springer show to get together and set the goals for the space program. Or maybe ask a “community organizer” where the space program should be headed.

      If I use the company analogy one could say that some companies use focus groups to find out what product or services they should make. They wait for the customer to tell them what to do. A company like Apple comes up with products and services that customers would never imagine by themselves. That’s product innovation and leadership. Even someone like Henry Ford said that if he asked people what they wanted they would of told him, “a faster horse”. How many people could of described Facebook before they saw it? Now, 1 Billion active users later, we know that’s what people needed and wanted – but they didn’t know it until they saw it.

      So why not make NASA more like Apple? It’s a mindset – the same that differentiates a compnay like Apple that takes the lead and a company that waits for someone to tell them what to do.

      That new NASA has to be built – with a different mindset, a different operating model, and with the ability to divest things no longer needed and invest in those things that will position it for the future. Unfortunatly, to do this probably has to come from the outside as organizations, at this level, can not heal themselves.


      December 6, 2012 at 4:20 pm

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