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Recent and ongoing debates over Constellation, the new policy, and programs like the Space Launch System demonstrate that NASA's human spaceflight program doesn’t have a central, compelling value proposition. (credit: NASA)

An enduring value proposition for NASA human spaceflight (part 1)

Where are we, and how did we get here?

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In 2007, I published an article in The Space Review titled “Sustaining Exploration: Communications, Relevance, and Value” that described NASA as a value delivery system (VDS). In it I made a case for re-alignment of the agency and its activities by means of a “value discovery process”. (The reader is directed to the previous paper for an explanation of value systems as applied to NASA and links to reference material.) The article identified some issues driving resistance to change within the agency and warned of the possibility of “organizational obsolescence” if NASA continued to hold tight to past successes as a raison d’être for activities in the present and future.

Rather than simply abandon the unique capabilities and expertise in mission operations that had been developed and honed over 50 years—tantamount to throwing away taxpayer investment in NASA—a value discovery process seemed in order.

Using a hypothetical example drawn from just one of NASA’s many human spaceflight (HSF) disciplines I presented a summary assessment of the state of space operations in low Earth orbit (LEO) in the context of proliferation of technology and space systems around the globe. The rate of technology development and deployment was ramping up. It seemed only a matter of time until systems of sufficient maturity would be available as viable alternatives to government systems. This could result in NASA’s eventual withdrawal from LEO in favor of commercial interests, given that the withdrawal did not create unacceptable levels of programmatic or geopolitical risk (a point that, four years later, is generating intense debate.)

Rather than simply abandon the unique capabilities and expertise in mission operations that had been developed and honed over 50 years—tantamount to throwing away taxpayer investment in NASA—a value discovery process seemed in order. Utilizing a team approach, NASA could undertake a methodical assessment of its core competencies in operations vis-à-vis new “customers” and applications. In the near term, these included, but were not limited to, “mission planning for resource development in the solar system”—that is, laying the groundwork for beyond Earth orbit (BEO) exploration.

In order to return value to the nation on a continuing basis, multiple strategies could be employed to sustain assets once they were no longer used in LEO. Coupled with a transformative approach that identified and characterized present and future stakeholders, defined and developed superior value propositions, and ensured an exceptional VDS, the value extant within NASA’s spaceflight operations community would generate a variety of opportunities in new value arenas.

At the time, I brainstormed a few new opportunities. To illustrate what was meant by “new value arenas” they are reproduced here:

  • NASA can participate in an international body to develop standards for space operations;
  • NASA can contribute its unique capabilities to exploration and development of ocean-based resources;
  • NASA can become a lead integrator for in spaceflight operations for both private and public organizations (domestic and international);
  • NASA can use its expertise and position as a customer in the marketplace to drive new innovations in LEO, using public/private platforms as test beds and facilitating public/private collaboration;
  • NASA can focus on entrepreneurial advocacy in LEO;
  • NASA can partner with other nations, providing expertise to international development of space operations capabilities in an advisory capacity (in return for offsets or government-to-government agreements in any one of several domains, not necessarily solely related to space);
  • NASA can lead mission planning for resource development in solar system (energy, raw materials, etc.) in public/private/domestic/international efforts.

It turned out that some of the suggestions I made were already in work. Many others have been initiated since.1 In addition, new value spaces and opportunities have surfaced. Anticipating that this would be the case in more than just spaceflight operations, harvesting the national investment in NASA HSF capabilities seemed a foregone conclusion. I did not even raise the question as to whether the value within NASA should be systematically leveraged toward the future.

It took a significant policy shift for me to realize I made an assumption not unlike those I saw at NASA: that my assessment of the value propositions (VPs) resident within the space agency was self-evident. As a result, I presented it much like an “article of faith”, without supporting evidence. Failure to see this cognitive trap has been instructive in the formulation of the present paper.

Recent events

Beginning in 2010, the Obama Administration undertook to transform NASA. This transformation involved a shift in agency priorities to place greater emphasis on Earth observation, particularly as applied to climate change; technology development, particularly for efforts that might yield breakthroughs for future space exploration efforts; and a shift to a new procurement process for LEO transportation systems, enabled by government-sponsored development of a number of entrepreneurial firms.

In the process, the Administration cancelled the Constellation Program (CxP), which was behind schedule and over budget. However, it retained and is developing the BEO Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV/Orion), is discussing a mission to an asteroid in 2025, and is reviewing designs and costs for a Space Launch System, which eventually will be a 130-ton heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLV).

Rapid shifts in policy have a disrupting effect upon internal cohesion. Sometimes this is deliberate and can be useful as a way to shake up the institution. Without adequate preparation of the workforce, however, rapid change is a risky journey.

The authors of these decisions cited as part of their rationale the findings of “The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee” (referred to as the “Augustine Committee”, after its chair, Norman Augustine). The committee had put forward several scenarios for continuing NASA HSF and space exploration by the agency. These required either the infusion of significant capital (on the order of tens of billions of dollars in the case of CxP, which the committee found was woefully underfunded relative to its goals), or the adoption of an alternative program dubbed the Flexible Path (FP). All of these models retained NASA at the center of the build-and-operate scenario, and most called for extension of the International Space Station Program until at least 2020. The committee also articulated an increased role for commercial space systems in the hopes these could serve to reduce costs.

The policy decisions announced subsequent to the Augustine Committee findings made it clear that the Administration intended to “re-imagine” NASA’s HSF efforts. The new model recast NASA in a role more akin to that of its predecessor, the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA). NACA’s original role was to advocate for, coordinate, and promote R&D in aeronautics. Over the decades it had developed strong relationships with research institutes, the developing aerospace industry, and academia. It was this position that enabled it to take up the challenge of doing the same for space in the 1950’s.

In line with this shift, the initial goals of the administration included postponement of NASA’s involvement in large-scale development of spaceflight systems. One assumes this course was charted in the hopes that the commercial sector will eventually develop the capability and expertise to completely free NASA from demands to build and operate complex human spaceflight systems. The idea is that this will also free NASA to transform itself, harness out-of-the-box research and thinking that otherwise was overwhelmed by large programs, and place agency at the forefront of technology development that will be needed to move humans out into the Solar System.

Arguments about the assumptions within the Augustine Report, or the merits of technical debate about FP vs. CxP, or analysis of the “political agendas” of this group or that, or parsing this central issue of whether or not NASA should remain an engineering and operations organization “vs.” an R&D organization (a false dichotomy if ever there was one) will not be taken up here. In and of itself, this shift in policy has merit. Among other things, focusing on capabilities rather than just destinations would facilitate the value discovery process, potentially unlocking new opportunities and value propositions.

The policy change suffered from two major difficulties. First, the shift was extremely rapid. Rapid shifts in policy have a disrupting effect upon internal cohesion. Sometimes this is deliberate and can be useful as a way to shake up the institution. Without adequate preparation of the workforce, however, rapid change is a risky journey. It is imperative that the leadership team has an a priori recognition of and sensitivity to the consequences of organizational disruption. Experience in change management is critical among executive management, together with access to outside experts upon whom they can rely. A steady hand at the helm is required lest disruption veer too close to destabilization.

There is a distinct difference between the likely outcomes of each. As Taylor Dinerman pointed out in his essay on NASA and national security, “Sometimes destabilizing an institution may be necessary to revive it, but more often the destabilization is simply destructive.”2 Among the consequences of destabilization is degradation in decision-making as a chain reaction takes place inside the organization. Personnel shift into a reactive, rather than proactive mode. At the same time, cognitive focus narrows. People hunker down. Resistance to change intensifies. To varying degrees, these were clearly visible throughout NASA beginning in February 2010 and into 2011.

The second point is about risk management. To reduce risk associated with rapid policy change it is particularly important that new policy be accompanied with a well-thought out, well-communicated implementation plan. The plan need not be worked out to the tiniest detail, but should contain at minimum rationale, strategy, goals, asset management, timeline, milestones, and resource allocations. The tactical level can follow.

The communication plan accompanying the implementation plan also must be strategic in nature. As both plans mature, communications should incorporate frequent updates aimed at achieving tactical goals. Finally it should support the workforce by disseminating information in such a way as to reduce uncertainty and combat misinformation before it starts.

Two major audiences should be addressed: the internal audience, e.g., the workforce at all levels, and the external stakeholders. In NASA’s case, the latter includs Congress, educators, international partners, the media, the science community, the security community, and the American people.3 All of these audiences have a vested interest in policy affecting NASA, either through investment or through the persistent allocation of other types of resources. Each affects the likelihood and amount of NASA’s continued funding.

Unfortunately, neither the implementation plan nor the communication plan was firmly in place throughout most of 2010. The ensuing confusion, demoralization, and trauma in the HSF communities and elsewhere—some of which was inevitable, given the magnitude of change—were greatly multiplied as a result.

The “top down” model of agency value, redux

As pointed out previously “conventional wisdom holds that government agencies exist outside the relationship between customers, value, and organization.”4 VPs are handed down from the Executive Branch. Agency leadership is mandated to follow direction. The role of the agency is to follow policy via executive direction. And so on.

We have not articulated, in understandable terms, a single superior, compelling and enduring value proposition for NASA HSF that serves the national interest.

The problem is that the VP “flow down” model results in very little flexibility within the agency. This in turn is counterproductive to the creative discovery of VPs. The organization is not enabled to develop its own VPs, or to restructure itself as a superior VDS. In fact, organizational rigidity is often increased. Ironically, this resistance to change is part of what the policy shift of 2010 may have been intended to overcome at NASA.

In addition to the risks associated with rapid shifts in policy in a top down model of VP assignment, NASA has been and remains at risk when the only VPs it can develop are responsive primarily to the needs of policy makers.

“…policy changes that repeatedly disrupt program strategy can erode support for NASA among all of its stakeholders, some of whom have begun to wonder what NASA’s [HSF] enduring value truly is.”5

The final point is the crucial one. What is the value for the nation in human spaceflight? How is that value best delivered?

In one form or another, arguments about NASA HSF VPs have been going on since the end of the Apollo Program. Unfortunately for NASA, for the commercial spaceflight industry, and for the nation, nothing fundamental has changed in our collective understanding of why we’re having the argument in the first place. As a result, the argument shifts form, waxes and wanes, often playing out at the tactical level—but it is always the same discussion in distracting disguise. The latest manifestation can be found in the argument over the need—or lack thereof—for the Space Launch System.6

We cannot settle the argument for a simple reason: We have not articulated, in understandable terms, a single superior, compelling and enduring value proposition for NASA HSF that serves the national interest.

The failure to articulate a compelling VP does not mean there isn’t one. On the contrary, “unpacking” NASA HSF reveals that there are too many. We haven’t decided which questions about NASA HSF and the national interest are most important. Said another way, we do not have a model for prioritizing NASA’s VPs that persists across successive Congresses and Administrations. The Obama Administration is attempting to put a model in place, as others have before them. We will only learn if it is sustainable after a changing of the guard in the Executive Branch.

Discovering high-priority, enduring value propositions in an agency such as NASA is urgent in a constrained environment. Compelling VPs are competitive when it comes to funding. In addition, high-priority VPs in government agencies require stewardship every bit as much as they do in corporate environments. This is impossible to achieve if those VPs are not identified.

Sadly, over the years the failure to understand this and its consequences has led to decisions about funding levels, policy, and implementation which, while well-meaning, have had a debilitating impact on the ability of the United States to maintain and advance its leadership in space.

In order to address this we must first determine what VPs are most important to the nation on a reoccurring basis, and then evaluate NASA’s ability to deliver them. We can begin by looking anew at the value spaces where NASA HSF is already returning value to the nation, and evaluate it in terms of national priorities. What can the nation’s “value market place” tell us about the NASA HSF VPs?

Next: Value discovery and NASA’s enduring value proposition


1 See for example, Hill, P.S. (2010). “Safe and cost-effective space operations in an era of international cooperation and commercialization.” Invited presentation in Space Policy on December 15, 2010. The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. Rice University, Houston, TX. Abstract and webcast.

2 Dinerman, T. (2011) “How the end of NASA affects US national security.” Accessed 8/4/2011.

3 This list of stakeholders is derived from studies of NASA’s stakeholder community funded by NASA, and carried out at MIT. See Cameron, B., & Crawley, E. F. (2007), “Architecting value: The implications of benefit network models for NASA exploration”. In Proceedings of AIAA Space 2007, September 18-20, Long Beach, CA. Paper #AIAA 2007-9930. Washington, DC: AIAA.

4 Dittmar, M. L. (2007). “Sustaining exploration: Communications, relevance and value” (Part 2). The Space Review. Accessed on 8/1/2011.

5 Dittmar, M. L. (2007) ibid.

6 Foust, J. (2011). “Heavy-lift limbo”. The Space Review. Accessed on 8/3/2011.