The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

While those inside the space community see NASA’s value as supporting human space exploration, the agency’s true value proposition is something more fundamental. (credit: NASA)

An enduring value proposition for NASA human spaceflight (part 2)

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“Discovering” value in NASA HSF

A question frequently asked by frustrated engineers, managers, and executives within NASA goes something like this: “Why can’t NASA just be given a mission and let alone to get on with it?” To understand why, a brief discussion about value discovery may be helpful.

A key point here is that value is determined by customers and stakeholders, not the offeror. Put another way, “value is in the eye of the beholder”.

Value is defined by what it costs to acquire an experience versus its worth. As long as worth exceeds cost, the experience (or product, or service) is valuable. If you are willing to pay for an experience or to expend other resources such as time or effort in order to get it, and you would repeat the choice a second time, then the experience is of value to you. The “value equation” summarizes this: Value = benefit – cost.

The value discovery process starts from the assumption that organizations may not always understand their own value propositions (VPs), particularly since needs, desires, and preferences of stakeholders change over time. The value discovery process studies customers and stakeholders and infers solutions for them that they wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves. These are then mapped to the organization—in this case, NASA—and lots of questions are asked.

Can the organization deliver on value? What does it need to do to restructure itself as a superior value delivery system? Organizations must be enabled (or mandated) to rethink themselves, challenge core beliefs, and reinvent processes, even if doing so means tipping sacred cows. The organization should be willing to improve what it already does well, leverage core competencies into new areas, build new competencies if necessary, and utilize best practices to deliver value outside traditional comfort zones. Finally, it has to manage to those VPs in a cost-effective manner.

A key point here is that value is determined by customers and stakeholders, not the offeror. Put another way, “value is in the eye of the beholder”. If NASA HSF’s beliefs about its value propositions and/or value delivery are out of kilter with its stakeholders, the VPs it delivers will not compete successfully for funding—no matter how good the engineering is, or how efficiently operations are executed, or how passionately the workforce feels about space. Organizations can trumpet their brand and value all they wish, but they ignore stakeholders, new opportunities, and adjacent value arenas in which to apply core competencies at peril of their survival.

NASA’s HSF programs contribute directly to national security by advancing American technical achievement, enhancing US prestige, and magnifying our presence in the global arena through US leadership in space.

In NASA’s case, insistence on the value of space exploration on its own merits has been detrimental to the agency. Tepid (at best) reception of that VP by policymakers and appropriators has gone hand-in-hand with chronic underfunding relative to the goals the agency aspired to. In a very real way, psychologically the agency has been choked by the fumes of Apollo, when funding was commensurate with an effort that was the symbolic equivalent of (and peaceful substitute for) war. NASA’s reluctance to accept that those funding levels were allocated only under those specific circumstances—which had little to do with space exploration—and to plan accordingly, has led to program starts and stops, major program restructuring, and to outright cancellation—not once, but over and over again.1 In this, it has been “helped”, repeatedly, by Congress.

Critics and policymakers who have pointed this out for over 30 years have been rejected by the agency, either tacitly or overtly. Indeed, NASA’s organizational immune system is so powerful that it blinded the agency to its own credibility issues with budget and program management and the reasons for it. Under such conditions it was impossible to institute meaningful change from within, in part because NASA resisted a political and historical reality.

Despite all of the unique facilities, capabilities, and expertise developed and deployed within NASA and its contractors over 50 years; despite the epochal achievements in human space flight; despite its vision for the future of humanity, human space exploration is not now and never has been the agency’s enduring value proposition for the nation.2 In the opinion of this author, there is only one that is, and it is summarized as follows: NASA’s HSF programs contribute directly to national security by advancing American technical achievement, enhancing US prestige, and magnifying our presence in the global arena through US leadership in space.

NASA’s enduring value proposition: national security3

Calling a value proposition “enduring” implies that, at a national level, certain priorities have been agreed upon. Those VPs aligned with the highest priorities are funded adequately, managed consciously, and handed off to the next set of elected officials and representatives. They have staying power in that they advance or protect US national interests in some way across Congresses and Administrations.

NASA HSF contributions to national security are primarily in two areas: (a) technology development, specifically “dual-use” technology, and (b) “soft power”

With regard to funding human spaceflight, however, sustainment has been an issue. Conventional wisdom based partly on experience is that this is because of the nature of yearly appropriations—but that isn’t the whole story. Even in a bitterly partisan environment, Congress still funds and manages the Department of Defense (DoD). Programs come and programs go, levels of readiness rise and fall, but never do we determine that the essential VP of the DoD—ensuring the defense of the nation—can be done away with or traded for a different ideological consideration. That is because the enduring VP associated with defense of the nation is that it protects our security and safety. Just how it does this gets down to the specifics of programs and people, and these are subject to often-cantankerous debate; however, the core VP endures. It will always engage some degree of support from policymakers (one set of stakeholders), legislators (another), and, most importantly, public support from the American people (a third). In short, it has been, is and will remain a national priority, enshrined in the US Constitution.

National defense is usually associated with “hard power” – that is, the use of force or threat of force to achieve a stated objective.4 However, national security is a broader concept and subject to intense political debate. The DoD’s definition of national security is used here, as follows:

“A collective term encompassing both national defense and foreign relations of the United States. Specifically, the condition provided by: a. a military or defense advantage over any foreign nation or group of nations; b. a favorable foreign relations position; or c. a defense posture capable of successfully resisting hostile or destructive action from within or without, overt or covert.”5

The DoD also defines what is meant by the “national security interests”:

“The foundation for the development of valid national objectives that define U.S. goals or purposes. National security interests include preserving U.S. political identity, framework, and institutions; fostering economic well-being; and bolstering international order supporting the vital interests of the United States and its allies.”6

The DoD is not alone in protecting national security. Homeland Defense, the CIA and other intelligence organizations, the State Department, USAID, and NASA all play roles. However, NASA’s contributions escape many policymakers and appropriators, some of whom appear to be wearing blinders and others who seem to bend over backwards in order to deny NASA’s role. The failure to “discover” (e.g., recognize) NASA HSF’s value in ensuring national security, particularly among newer Congressional members, means that low or no priority is assigned to that value proposition on an ongoing basis. That unhappy state of affairs in turn drives both the way the assets associated with HSF are managed (internal to the agency) and the resources made available to the enterprise (external to the agency).

As implied by the VP above, NASA HSF contributions to national security are primarily in two areas: (a) technology development, specifically “dual-use” technology, and (b) “soft power”—defined by Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion.”7 With regard to dual-use technology, NASA sprang directly from military technology and has contributed indirectly to its development since. With regard to soft power, NASA has engaged other nations both directly and indirectly in ways that have benefited the United States. Together, these attributes have created both tangible and intangible value that—even when not fully recognized—have contributed to continuing appropriations over decades for a program with a very specific purpose that ended in 1972.

Next: Dissecting the NASA National Security VP


1 The list includes the first shuttle follow-on (1980s), the X-33, the X-38, the National Launch System (proposed with the DoD), the Strategic Launch Initiative (and the Orbital Space Plane), various versions of what became the International Space Station (notably Space Station Freedom), and Project Constellation.

2 In the interests of transparency, I am a member of the HSF community, and it has been very difficult for me to come to terms with these issues. Perhaps because of my own affiliation with and love of human space exploration for its own sake I can understand adherence to organizational myths and resistance to change. But only to a point. Looking at the world as it is—not as we think it should be—is at the root of understanding of where we are, how we got here, and where we go from here.

3 This position is by no means original to the author, and is informed by review of 30 years of research, policy formulation, and legislation. For recent analyses on the topic, the reader might consider Space as a Strategic Asset by Joan Johnson-Freese (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) and “Human space flight and national power” by John M. Logsdon (2007, High Frontier, 3, pp. 10-12).

4 Campbell, K.M. & O’Hanlon, M.E. (2006). Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books.

5 Department of Defense (8 November 2010), “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms” (as amended through 15 July 2011). Joint Publication 1-02.

6 Ibid.

7 Nye, J.S. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs Press