The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Orion at the Moon
Future NASA exploration efforts must fit into a series of preconditions that, if not met, will doom the effort to failure. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

A new debate, part 2

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In a previous article (“A new debate”, The Space Review, July 6, 2010), I outlined a plan to create a new future for NASA. The purpose was not to discuss improving the performance of the organization as it exists but to extract the key capabilities from it and convert them into free-standing wealth-creating entities outside of central government control. What follows is the prequel to that proposal. But first, an illustrative detour to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is needed.

Private enterprise vs. government agency

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Fortune magazine published an article in October 2005, titled: “The Only Lifeline Was the Wal-Mart”. This piece opened with a photograph of a National Guardsman in uniform, rifle slung down his back, pushing a shopping cart through a Wal-Mart store in Harahan, Louisiana. This is an iconic image depicting how the best of private enterprise shamed the government agencies who should have been the first and most effective responders to this catastrophe. The Guardsman found it quicker to stock up on supplies for his unit than wait for stuff to trickle through the official channels. In fact some of the soldiers were so poorly equipped that Wal-Mart handed out bullets and holsters to them. The article described how the company had, thanks to its own meteorologists, tracked the storm and predicted its landfall at least 12 hours before the National Weather Service warning. The knowledge enabled huge quantities of supplies to be positioned around the area to help in the relief effort, often several days before anything from FEMA arrived.

That article provided a dramatic example of how private enterprise can outperform government agencies. Companies can also help these bodies after the event as well: UPS seconded a young expert to FEMA for six months to bring them up from state-of-the-ark to state-of-the-art logistics systems—free of charge.

It is at least probable that the private enterprise space firms will operate more like Exxon than BP—“private” is not synonymous with “lax”.

When they are operating at their finest, commercial firms can be their own effective regulators as well. After the Exxon Valdez disaster, the company name became synonymous with evil. But it learned the lesson and since then has obsessed over safety. Exxon had been drilling a well in the Gulf at the same depth as the now-infamous Macondo well being driven by BP. As the drill was nearing completion, to the delight of the geoscientists, the drillers were becoming increasingly worried that the well would blow out and that drilling should stop. The argument was elevated to senior management who supported the drillers and chose to abandon what was estimated to be a billion-barrel field. BP continued with their project. Despite the fact that BP had received 760 fines for safety violations in the last five years (Exxon had one), the government regulatory body remained asleep at the switch.

While a regulatory framework is necessary, it is at least probable that the private enterprise space firms will operate more like Exxon than BP—“private” is not synonymous with “lax”.

What then of NASA? Unlike firms such as Wal-Mart and UPS whose world-class logistics are the driving force behind their continued success, NASA’s core competencies remain locked away and underperforming. The agency may not always have been internally well-managed but it has suffered for decades under the external control of politicians and plagued by politics. Now is the time to design a new future in which these capabilities can be set free to achieve their true potential in new relationships with innovative private space firms to advance human exploration of the solar system.

There are those for whom the idea of breaking up NASA is sacrilege. It does seem like heresy, but to permit the agency to succeed in its present form and under the same governance there are four crucial, non-negotiable preconditions that would have to be in place. These are described below.

A compelling vision

The president must articulate a clear, compelling, long-range vision for space exploration that will energize the nation to support the goals stated. This vision must describe an inspiring purpose, a rationale, and the benefits of the program that may range from national prestige or strategic imperatives, such as national security, to the economic benefits that will flow from successful completion of the program by a stated time horizon.

Whether or not there is life out there, the president must make space live.

The need for a powerful vision statement cannot be overstated. As things stand, space activities are invisible to most people. Accept for local residents, rocket launches are not seen, the space craft deployed are out of view, their purpose is unclear, results are not widely understood, and whether these efforts produce tangible benefits here on Earth is unknown. All that is ‘known’ is the cost of funding NASA and even that is exaggerated as people are generally unaware that its funding is merely a rounding error in the overall budget.

Whether or not there is life out there, the president must make space live.


Since the more ambitious goals will be multiyear projects, they will extend across several presidential terms. Therefore each incoming president must commit to supporting the vision already set without trying to redesign the programs already being worked on, neither needlessly cutting them back nor embellishing them with add-ons that increase complexity, cost and timescales to completion.


When major programs are initiated they will have been costed and a level of funding agreed to start work. Subsequent annual allocations of money should be guaranteed up front so that work can proceed smoothly year to year. Only in the direst national emergencies should funding be temporarily withheld, reduced, or withdrawn. When cost overruns occur then it will be legitimate to review the situation and take corrective action. Funding should not be left to the whim of the government and constant fluctuations in political priorities that have often left NASA twisting in the wind.


NASA’s leader should be chosen through open competition. No more political appointees. The principal criterion for selecting candidates and choosing the winner should be their successful track record in leading large, complex organizations engaged in long-range projects along with proven ability in leading change efforts which may be necessary from time to time. They may, and perhaps should not, be space “insiders”. Consider the case of Alan Mulally at Ford. He was a “plane guy” when everyone expected a “car guy” but he has been a resounding success in turning around the company and leading it through the recession to emerge as the great survivor of the Detroit auto industry meltdown. Furthermore, the leader should be expected to stay much longer than is currently the case to steer the organization through the long-term projects. Frequent changes at the top are unsettling to everyone in the organization.

Over the years since Apollo, some of these four conditions may have been met to some extent some of the time, but not all have been achieved simultaneously for extended periods. For an organization that has to undertake long-term projects, the constant uncertainty regarding vision, continuity, funding, and leadership prevents real achievement. There is no reason to assume that things will be materially different in future unless radical changes are made.

The choice is not between NASA and no NASA. It is about finding a solution to the age-old thought that precedes any innovation: There must be a better way.

Without a vision-driven, sustained space effort, the focus has been blurred. The space program must become human-centric. For decades, NASA has probed, roved, orbited, observed, surveyed, photographed, and mapped, but in the last 40 years, apart from the Moon, not one boot print has been made anywhere and not one rock has been picked up by a human hand off the Earth and closely inspected by human eyes. While robots can help to scout the way, exploration cannot truly be said to have been done until humans do it. It has been said that no photographs taken or words written can prepare you for your first sight of the Grand Canyon. I know that to be true. So, don’t give me grainy snapshots of Olympus Mons—take me there!

The changes I proposed for NASA won’t be implemented overnight and there are complexities to resolve. Some commentators are concerned with the intragovernmental links that exist between NASA and other regulatory agencies and functions. However, if NASA is repurposed, then it follows that these relationships will also have to be recast to fit the new circumstances. These linkages are there because NASA exists and has to coexist, sharing responsibilities and boundaries with other entities. But such networks are not immutable and, like anything else created by government, can be unpicked and rearranged. Agencies and their charters should be as susceptible to “creative destruction” as any firm or industry is.

The choice is clear: Do we want space to be open to everyone at an affordable price whenever they wish to access it—that means reforming NASA as I described in my last article—or should we cling on to an organization called NASA even though, with the constraints outlined above, it will never achieve the goal of opening up human exploration of space?

The choice is not between NASA and no NASA. It is about finding a solution to the age-old thought that precedes any innovation: There must be a better way.

That’s the topic for a new debate.