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Obama at KSC
When President Obama announced plans for future exploration enabled by technology development efforts, he set another challenge for NASA: getting its operational and research sides to better collaborate. (credit: B. Ingalls/NASA)

Destination: onward

Reinventing NASA to meet the challenge of its new mission


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When a new president finally makes time in his busy schedule to decide on a direction for his space agency, he lays out a vision in words calculated to seem Kennedy-esque in decades to come. President Reagan envisioned a mammoth space station functioning as an orbiting maintenance facility for satellites. The first President Bush said that we should go to Mars as soon as ever we could. President Clinton said that we should build a space station in a way that explored new reaches in cooperation among nations of the Earth. And George W. Bush said to put Apollo on steroids and shoot the Moon. Now it’s President Obama’s turn. With an industrial gray, metal staircase as a backdrop, he passed up the soaring rhetoric and sci-fi visions and instead charged NASA to build its future step by step through the industrial gray work of inventing and maturing technology.

The agency’s organizational culture has been consecrated to accomplishing what it can without compromising safety and mission success. Now NASA is being asked to focus on missions that are not within technological reach.

No president in the post-Apollo era has offered this kind of vision. It does not imagineer a system or point skyward to a destination. Instead, it directs the space agency how it should move ahead, with inventive technology rather than conventional engineering. It encompasses all systems possibilities, even those that cannot yet be imagineered, and it embraces all destinations, pivoting on a manned landing on Mars, but not starting there, and not stopping there either. Technology opportunities will determine how we go, where we go, why we go, and when we go. Those who wanted a destination for human spaceflight have now been answered. The destination is: onward.

The Apollo program developed, matured, and incorporated new technologies at an amazing rate. Since then, NASA has focused on systems that were difficult, yes, but within reach of established technology. The agency’s organizational culture has been consecrated to accomplishing what it can without compromising safety and mission success. Now NASA is being asked to focus on missions that are not within technological reach. Its heritage of disciplined engineering and astute operations must be applied to technology that has yet to be invented. It challenges NASA to routinely move technology into operation without forsaking the lessons of safety and mission assurance gained from 50 years of hard won experience.

This will require profound changes in NASA’s culture.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome

NASA’s few failed missions were so traumatic and so perilous to the agency’s future that NASA’s spaceflight culture solidified around minimizing the possibility of failure. This failure intolerance places a huge hurdle between a new technology and its assignment to a mission-critical role. If a spacecraft can have no more than, say, one in a hundred chance of failure, and if it has a hundred functions that are critical to its success, then any one of those functions would be required to demonstrate one in ten thousand chance of failure. To ensure this level of confidence, new technology must be exhaustively tested under a full range of flight conditions and circumstances. All its failure modes must be discovered and tests repeated until their probabilities can be estimated. If it doesn’t achieve its reliability requirement, it or the system it goes into must be redesigned and recertified. The alternative is to use components and designs that have already proven themselves on missions, that have “flight heritage.” Since testing is expensive and time consuming while flight heritage is virtually free, most program managers, with a budget and schedule to respect, accept performance compromises in order to use heritage hardware. And so the spaceflight community, both human and robotic, developed a technologically conservative culture.

The agency must stop pursuing achievable missions by injecting hormones into the body of aging technology and instead conceive ambitious missions that demand young technology.

NASA’s aeronautics program has focused almost exclusively on technology development for many decades, but lessons from that arena can’t be force fit onto the space program. NASA doesn’t try to bring its aeronautics technology all the way to operations. It gets infused into operational systems through aircraft companies as soon as they believe that its maturity will provide a return on investment. Most of NASA’s space technology will go into its own operations. A NASA program manager doesn’t have an ROI motivation to make new technology work. If the space program is to overcome its ingrained technological conservatism, NASA must find an equivalent motivation for its own space systems.

This fresh motivation is exactly what the new vision for NASA provides. Nothing is more tantalizing to the NASA community than the prospect of a challenging, new mission, and President Obama has said that the community may push onward in whatever direction seems appropriate, on the condition that it does so with new technology. The agency must stop pursuing achievable missions by injecting hormones into the body of aging technology and instead conceive ambitious missions that demand young technology. If the mission “go” depends on maturing its critical technology, NASA will find a way to make it happen, even if it means evolving its corporate culture.

The farmers and the cowboys should be friends

The culture disruption is sure to cause stresses within the NASA community. The program side will defend the high standards that are the basis of NASA’s engineering and operational excellence. The research side will chafe under the discipline that excellence demands. Both will insist that the other doesn’t really understand. And both will be right.

The divide has deep roots in the work-a-day culture of different parts of the agency. Program people work in very large teams. They rely on formal mechanisms like documentation and boards to coordinate their activities. They depend on leaders to assign work, levy due dates, review and adjust outputs, and make critical decisions. Failure is not an option. Programs can work no other way. Researchers, by comparison, tend to work alone or in a small group. They set their own objectives, pace their own activities, and make their own decisions. They have little patience for formality or leadership. Mostly, they just want to be left alone to do their work. Failure is just part of the job—you fix it and go on. Research can work no other way.

The needed culture change cannot expect either group to give up things that make it good at what it does. On the contrary, both must understand and respect their differences but work together in spite of them. Researchers must understand operational considerations and constraints. Program managers must understand the capabilities and implications of new technologies. Researchers must share custody over their work as it matures, even before they think it’s ready. Program people must exercise imagination and flexibility in using new technologies.

The way NASA brings together its two subcultures will determine whether the result is a shotgun marriage that falls apart as soon as it’s allowed to, or a love match that’s stimulating, productive, and enduring for as long as they both shall live.

In a sense, this is analogous to the challenge President Clinton levied on NASA when he asked the agency to include international partners in building and operating a space station. NASA’s research and spaceflight cultures are every bit as different as the American and Russian space program cultures were in 1993. Bringing President Obama’s vision to life requires NASA’s creativity to not only invent technical products but also to reinvent its own business models. No linear extrapolation of NASA’s current culture will ensure that the technology possibilities opened by researchers will mature into mission realities.

The way NASA brings together its two subcultures will determine whether the result is a shotgun marriage that falls apart as soon as it’s allowed to, or a love match that’s stimulating, productive, and enduring for as long as they both shall live. The brokered marriage between the Americans and the Russians eventually matured into a relationship of mutual respect and support. This gives hope that uniting two factions of the same federal agency can meet with at least as much success. But we cannot expect that a satisfying union will emerge spontaneously from happy slogans about one NASA any more than it did from international smiles and handshakes.

The profound cultural differences between NASA’s research and program segments make conflict absolutely foreseeable and almost inevitable. The only way to preclude it is to anticipate it and meet it head on. The agency must come up with ways to get its research and spaceflight parts to work together on the mutual goal of new, more adventurous missions. It must devise new program structures that motivate people to work together. My next essay will suggest what those program structures might be.

The new mission means that the whole agency will succeed or fail together. The operational side will not thrive by bleeding the research side, but neither will the research side thrive at the expense of operations. Technology-enabled missions require a new partnership and a new culture, and these are likely to disrupt comfortable work patterns. But in the end, it is the only way to proceed towards NASA’s true and enduring destination: onward.


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