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There are a number of things Congress can do to promote an enduring value proposition for human spaceflight. (credit: J. Foust)

An enduring value proposition for NASA human spaceflight (part 4)

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Managing to a value proposition

It must first be said that managing to a value proposition (VP)—any value proposition—is exceedingly difficult. Within the most disciplined corporations, in those rare cases where organizational structure and function are aligned with execution on a VP and on the creation of a superior Value Delivery System (VDS), it is still difficult. The reasons vary but generally come down to life’s tendency to upset the apple cart—that is, to our inability to predict the future. It’s not that we can’t predict it. It’s that we fail to recognize that we can’t predict it. The corollary is the myth of our ability to “control events”.

If within just two years of the inception of the Apollo program, in the midst of the Cold War, Congress did not wholeheartedly endorse the value of NASA human spaceflight, it is little surprise that they have failed to do so since.

Successfully managing to a VP requires that the product, service, or attribute of value is recognized and understood. Its market or audience is similarly well-understood, as are the methods by which value is delivered. Everything the organization does is focused on creating, protecting, and delivering, and promoting value—and on seeking feedback as regards its efforts. The role of executive management is to see that all of this happens efficiently and to enable its continuation even in the face of change.

When things change—and they always do—successful management does not make the mistake of assuming that what worked in the past will work now, or in the future. Instead, it will lead the organization in reassessing value; adapting structure, functions, and even offerings; and in re-thinking how it delivers them. This approach neither refuses to see change nor suffers from the illusion of control; rather, it seeks input using the appropriate measures to ascertain when adjustments are needed and does not hesitate to make them when appropriate.

Back to the future

In the case of NASA human spaceflight (HSF), executive management effectively falls to the President and from him or her to the NASA Administrator regarding policy. NASA also must be responsive to Congressional mandate as it concerns appropriations. While Presidential awareness of the soft power of NASA’s HSF programs has remained intact—albeit at low levels—Congress as a whole (with some exceptions) has never truly embraced it. The failure to do so is at the root of the current struggle over NASA’s direction. However, this too is nothing new.

As early as 1963, just “a bit more than two years after Apollo was begun, the Congress was beginning to sour on providing the resources necessary to meet the program’s end-of-the-decade goal”.1 That year, Congress cut NASA’s appropriations by 11 percent against the President Kennedy’s request, $850 million below what the agency said it needed to achieve a lunar landing on schedule. Kennedy’s own concerns about the cost of the program were a recurring theme in discussions and in periodic reviews of the program initiated by the White House.

In the years since, Congressional reluctance to move forward in 1963 largely has been swept under the rug (or faded from memory) except as it surfaces in policy or historical analysis. In the context of the present discussion, however, the historical debates and continuing Congressional ambivalence about the extraordinary funding levels required by the program are instructive, because the Congress of that day knew exactly what the VPs of the Apollo program were intended to be—namely that the Moon program represented “part of the battle along the fluid front of the cold war.”2 But not all agreed. If within just two years of the inception of the Apollo program, in the midst of the Cold War, Congress did not wholeheartedly endorse the value of NASA human spaceflight, it is little surprise that they have failed to do so since.

How might Congress “manage” to a NASA human spaceflight VP?

No VP is universally accepted in any organization. However, as pointed out in Part 3, Congress has accepted the ongoing value proposition of agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Centers for Disease Control, and the State Department. Each of these agencies has a clear VP: something like “To ensure national security and safety from the incursion or control of external powers and to defend the nation as needed”; “to ensure the health of the American citizenry and to manage outbreaks of disease;” or “to promote American values and interests abroad, and to develop and enhance international relationships.”

What each of these ideas has in common is that NASA HSF is once more placed in context as a means of ensuring national security and projecting soft power—not an end unto itself.

In Part 2 I proposed a VP for NASA HSF that is something like “…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.” Such a VP places NASA HSF somewhere between the DoD and the State Department in its contributions to national security. For the sake of argument, if it is true and if this VP was generally accepted, here are some ideas as to how Congress could manage to NASA’s HSF VP on a continuing basis. As with all value-driven organizations, alignment of agency goals with this VP would create yet more change at NASA and in Congress’s relationship with the agency. But it should be noted that some parts of these are already underway at either the behest of Congress or of the Executive Branch. Some are not.

1) Congress could mandate and provide funding such that technology development aimed at enabling space exploration is elevated within the agency and placed on a footing similar to the execution of HSF programs. In addition, other types of technical achievement should be incentivized and are expected to occur both serendipitously and as a result of systematic incubation. Finally, “dual use” technology should be specifically called out as part of the NASA research portfolio.

2) Congress could fund and monitor NASA’s execution of those programs and activities related to HSF that enhance US prestige. This first requires a better understanding of the conditions under which said enhancement occurs, and why. Note that this is not a solely a call for “better public relations” or communication, but for a systematic evaluation of the link between the NASA HSF programs and international response. This evaluation should involve not only NASA personnel but also experts in government relations and in public relations on an international scale, as well as representatives from the US diplomatic and defense communities. Once understood, those activities that support US prestige and soft power as well as meet other national objectives should be funded. NASA HSF activities must be ongoing, extensible, and highly visible. At the same time, NASA management should be incentivized to drive out efficiencies and foster innovation, and “sustainability” of programs should be factored into the national understanding of their success.

3) Congress could fund and mandate NASA to utilize its human spaceflight activities specifically for the purposes of promoting US leadership and creating and enhancing international relationships. There are many ways to do this; the International Space Station program is the most obvious and was shaped by this purpose. Opening up NASA’s beyond Earth orbit (BEO) efforts and engaging other governments in planning and execution visibly (once initial negotiations are concluded) represents another path. Creating opportunities for transfer of knowledge about LEO operations to international government and commercial entities (within ITAR and security restrictions) is another. Building an international site for space mission analog studies involving humans is yet another.

4) Congress could remove or modify the restrictions on NASA “advertisements” and enable the agency to make use of all media and formats promoting its value propositions, much as the DoD is free to do for recruiting and for public relations, and as the State Department does as part of its efforts.

5) Congress could fund core competencies and infrastructure within the agency and in the industrial sector to maintain some minimal level of “readiness” in support of HSF, similar to the approach taken by the DoD in maintaining measurable states of readiness through internal programs and the fostering of capabilities within its industrial base. “Readiness” means that the agency, contractors and commercial interests could mount a rapid response in the case of loss of capability among international partners or in the commercial sector.

What each of these ideas has in common is that NASA HSF is once more placed in context as a means of ensuring national security and projecting soft power—not an end unto itself.

Next: taking stock


1 Logsdon, J. M. (2010) John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. NY: Palgrave Macmillan (p. 209)

2 Ibid (p. 105).