Beware of Mars and Bust
by Mark Craig
|A “Mars or Bust” mindset and approach will result in “Mars and Bust”: reaching Mars with humans and then having the enterprise cancelled after several human landings like Apollo|
The NASA Authorization Act of 2010’s Section 202(a), as refined by Section 411 of the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, declares that the long-term goals of NASA human spaceflight and exploration efforts shall be:
The 2010 Act’s Section 202(b), as refined by the 2017 Act’s Section 412, goes on to say that the key objectives of the United States for human expansion into space shall be:
The ultimate basis of NASA human exploration enterprise sustainability is value and benefit to the nation, to NASA’s stakeholders. Value whose creation and delivery is built into the enterprise and is then actually experienced by stakeholders, not simply claimed by NASA. Value now and in the future as it evolves with discovery, innovation, and opportunity. Value that is commensurate with the cost to produce it. Value to stakeholders that have sufficient collective leverage to influence outcomes. The NASA Authorization Acts’ human exploration long-term goals and key objectives declare what that value is to be.
Sustainability both results from value to the nation and is itself of value as it motivates stability and reducing program start-stop churn. It is often confused with affordability. If an enterprise were affordable surely it would be sustainable. Not so. An enterprise that is sustainable is by definition affordable, but an enterprise that is affordable is not by definition sustainable.
|An enterprise that is sustainable is by definition affordable, but an enterprise that is affordable is not by definition sustainable.|
Destinations, architectures, and vehicles are “means,” but means to what ends? What are politically viable and sufficient ends for NASA’s human exploration enterprise to be sustainable? Our nation’s political leadership in the NASA authorization acts’ human exploration long-term goals and key objectives has specified what those “ends” are.
Sustainability must be deliberately built into NASA’s human exploration enterprise. It takes commitment, planning, resource, and time. As Gen. Jack Dailey is fond of pointing out, “Ain’t no rabbit ever been pulled out of a hat that wasn’t put in there first.”
Recognizing the critical importance of enterprise sustainability, NASA has identified “Strategic Principles for Sustainable Exploration” as guidance to achieve it. NASA needs to make several enhancements to these Principles to increase their effectiveness:
Narrative is a best practice to effectively organize an enterprise. Narrative is strategy as it shapes and connects the “dots” that make up an enterprise. Narrative messages enterprise intent, value, and values. Narrative engages enterprise stakeholders. Because narrative drives shaping, messaging, and engagement, it promotes enterprise coherence and efficacy. NASA needs to add a Strategic Principle mandating the creation and implementation of an effective narrative that defines and shapes the NASA human exploration enterprise and its messaging.
NASA seems to define its current human exploration narrative as “Journey to Mars,” a narrative that defeats sustainability and is at odds with having Strategic Principles for Sustainable Exploration. A “journey” ends when the destination is reached. Narrative conveys enterprise intent and builds expectation, for good or ill.
Narrative should be based on value to the nation and opportunity, and should evolve as they do moving from one narrative to the next in overlapping layers. NASA human space exploration began with a “Race to the Moon” narrative that shaped Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. The current narrative layer is “International Partnerships” that shaped Apollo-Soyuz, Spacelab, Shuttle-Mir, International Space Station, and the Global Exploration Roadmap.
A strong case can be made that the emerging narrative layer is the “Exploration and Commercial Development of Space.” It expresses a dominant theme in the NASA authorization acts’ human exploration long-term goals and key objectives as they focus on exploration and a thriving space economy, expanded commercial presence and sustainable economic activities in space, and US economic security and global competitive posture. This narrative layer is shaping SLS, Orion, Commercial Cargo and Crew, Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities, and NextSTEP. NASA’s role is to lead the exploration of space with international and commercial partners and to do so in a way that supports space’s commercial development, and then makes use of that development to advance exploration. This narrative dictates that NASA move from directing to orchestrating in mindset and management process.
A critical mass and broad portfolio of international and commercial (i.e. private enterprise) partnerships is absolutely essential for the sustainability of NASA’s human exploration enterprise. NASA’s Strategic Principle #7 is “Global Collaboration and Leadership: substantial new international and commercial partnerships, leveraging current International Space Station partnerships and building new cooperative ventures for exploration.” Because of its major contribution to sustainability and its direct response to the NASA authorization acts’ long-term goal “to do so… in a manner involving international, academic, and industry partners,” Principle #7 should be elevated from near the bottom of the eight-principle list to near the top, and its criticality clearly explained. Its relationship to Principle #5: Economic Opportunity should also be articulated.
|NASA’s role is to lead the exploration of space with international and commercial partners and to do so in a way that supports space’s commercial development, and then makes use of that development to advance exploration.|
Creating these partnerships will involve developing and pursuing an architecture that engages the partners, even if it involves other destinations or new business models to do so. Again, it will require that NASA move from directing to orchestrating in mindset and management process. The first step is a shared vision that is yet to be created. Just as with technology, NASA human exploration enterprise progress must be paced by development of this partner base if it is to be sustained.
The NASA authorization acts’ human exploration long-term goals and key objectives are a robust bipartisan policy foundation for enterprise sustainability. NASA created its Strategic Principles for Sustainable Exploration as guidance to achieve sustainability. The Strategic Principles need to be better shaped by, and reference, the acts’ human exploration goals and objectives. NASA must clearly articulate, implement, and socialize the relationship between the two to establish context and legitimacy of the Principles, and to garner support for the results of their application.
The long-term goals and key objectives in the acts are basically Level 0 requirements to be expressed in a narrative and flowed down to shape the “where, what, how, and when” trade space. Charting the path through the trade space should be guided by the Strategic Principles for Sustainable Exploration, especially narrative. With the broad portfolio of value expressed in the long-term goals and key objectives, understanding the relationships and setting priorities between values will require that experts in commerce, diplomacy, security, culture, and more be involved with both NASA and its external advisory bodies.
Sustainability is a critical attribute of NASA human exploration because it results from the enterprise delivering sufficient return on investment and because it motivates program stability. Creating enterprise sustainability requires deliberate action. The nation’s political leadership has established a robust bipartisan policy foundation for enterprise sustainability in the NASA authorization acts’ human exploration long-term goals and key objectives. NASA’s Strategic Principles for Sustainable Exploration recognize the critical importance of enterprise sustainability and provide guidance for its creation. It is vitally important to the nation and to NASA human space exploration that NASA’s Strategic Principles and their implementation be robust.