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Bolden before Congress
NASA administrator Charles Bolden, seen here testifying before Congress last year, and other supporters of NASA’s new plan are struggling to win over skeptical legislators and others in the space community. (credit: NASA/B. Ingalls)

NASA’s need to win hearts and minds

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For some, it’s all but over. In various blogs and other discussion forums on the Internet, people are convinced that the fiscal year 2011 budget proposal for NASA is effectively dead on arrival in Congress. Constellation will live on in some form or other, they believe, and the notion that the private sector can handle the responsibility of ferrying astronauts to and from low Earth orbit will be set aside for some indefinite future date.

It’s premature to write the obituary for the new plan just yet. However, if supporters want to be successful, a change of strategy may be in order.

It’s not hard to see why some would come to that conclusion. The reaction in Congress to the budget proposal to date—at least among those members who have given the budget proposal any attention—has been largely negative, from Sen. Richard Shelby’s statement within an hour of the budget’s release that it “begins the death march for the future of US human space flight” to critical questions from members of Congress in recent hearings. (It is a mistake, though, to conclude that Congress is opposed to the plan: that implies that Congress is a monolithic entity and, as any observer of that institution can tell you, it most certainly is not.) Added to that is local opposition, particularly in places like Florida, Alabama, and Utah that stand to lose thousands of jobs in an already weak economy with the retirement of the shuttle and the cancellation of Constellation. There are also the editorials and op-eds worrying about the loss of inspiration and national prestige that they believe would result from the new NASA plan.

The latest evidence appeared to come last week, when the Wall Street Journal reported that NASA administrator Charles Bolden was seeking a “plan B” to present to Congress in reaction to the strong opposition that the original plan received from key committees. As it turns out, it was a miscommunication: “I did not ask anybody for an alternative to the President’s plan and budget,” Bolden said in a brief statement in response to the article. Nonetheless, it added to the perception that the new plan was in trouble.

However, it’s premature to write the obituary for the new plan just yet. It’s only been five weeks since the plan’s low-key rollout, and the budget cycle is still in its earliest phases. It won’t be until late this calendar year—if not early next year, given the difficulties past Congresses have had in passing appropriations bills on time—before the NASA budget is enacted: plenty of time for the agency and other advocates of the proposal to drum up support. If they want to be successful, though, a change of strategy may be in order.

A fumbled kickoff

In the past, major new space initiatives have been heralded in presidential addresses: think of President Kennedy’s 1961 proclamation that the US would land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, President Reagan’s announcement in his 1984 State of the Union address that NASA would develop a space station, and the space exploration announcements by the two Presidents Bush in 1989 and 2004. Americans—at least those who care about space—had come to believe that major space policy changes required a presidential announcement.

This time around, though, there was no presidential announcement: no mention of space in the State of the Union address or anything else before the administration released the FY2011 budget on the morning of February 1, containing sweeping changes for NASA. This created the perception by some that President Obama didn’t care about space, a feeling that was exacerbated if you were a supporter of Constellation.

That lack of consultation as well as the limited details in the budget release would be just minor transgressions if the new NASA budget was business as usual. That’s not the case this time.

The announcement was understated even for a budget rollout. Unlike past years, when NASA held a press conference at its Washington headquarters where the administrator and other officials discussed the details of the budget, NASA instead held a telecon, during which Bolden read an opening statement—and then left, turning over the details, and the duties of answering questions, to other officials from the agency and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Even the budget information released that day was limited: rather than the hundreds of pages of documents going over every agency program included in the budget in detail, all NASA released were high-level summary documents outlining funding levels and programs that were being started or ended. (NASA did eventually release those documents, but only after three weeks.)

As it turns out, there was a good reason for the lack of information released that day. Normally NASA gets its budget “passback”—the administration’s decision on what funding level it will get in the next budget proposal—from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in late November or early December. This time around, though, according to various accounts, the passback came much later: the weekend before the budget’s release, barely enough time to put together the high-level information released that Monday.

Also missing from the budget preparations, apparently, was any consultation or coordination with Congress prior to its release. “I thought it was particularly troubling that senior people within the administration and on your staff engaged in a campaign of telephone calls with reporters prior to the budget rollout to explain the embargoed program details instead of providing details to this committee,” Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), ranking member of the space subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, said to Bolden during a hearing last month. “This is not a media campaign. NASA should be communicating with its policy and oversight committees.”

That lack of consultation as well as the limited details in the budget release would be just minor transgressions if the new NASA budget was business as usual. That’s not the case this time, and as a result the lack of details and coordination with key Congressional stakeholders put the agency at a disadvantage at a time when it needs to win over members of Congress worried about how the changes will affect the country and also their constituents. In the days that followed Bolden admitted that the rollout of the budget was “screwed up” and took the blame for it (see “An agency in transition”, The Space Review, February 8, 2010).

However, the poorly-handled release by NASA and the administration put NASA in a hole that it has not emerged from, based on recent Congressional hearings and other events. In those hearings, particularly the science committee hearing on February 25th, members peppered Bolden with concerns about the effect the changes will have on the workforce, on the ability of private providers to transport astronauts to the space station, the potential loss of international prestige to the US by not having the ability to launch humans into orbit for several years, and even whether it would have a deleterious effect on inspiring students to study math and science. And some of NASA’s responses to them have been a bit tone-deaf.

“The fact is that we have been trying to relive Apollo for the last 40 years,” said Garver. “We have not been able to recreate that since, and I am not even sure that we would want to, given even that did not provide us with a sustained presence in space.”

Addressing one of those concerns, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) said at that hearing, “The lack of a clear mission, with goals and milestones, fails to not only inspire the current NASA workforce, but also fails to inspire the future generation of scientists and astronauts.” She added that she had recently visited a high school in her district and met with a student who said he wanted to be an astronaut. “I had no clue what to say to him at that point,” she said, citing the cancellation of Constellation in the budget proposal.

Bolden’s response didn’t help. “I would have told him to forget it for a while,” he said. His response was well-intentioned: he thought students should focus first on getting a good science and engineering education (and, unstated, that the odds of becoming a NASA astronaut are very long: there are far more professional athletes in the US today than members of the astronaut corps). But in the context of the hearing, that probably didn’t alleviate any concerns about the future of human spaceflight.

Making an emotional connection

What is particularly challenging in this circumstance is not that the administration did a less-than-stellar job in rolling it out: no new initiative makes a flawless debut. The real challenge is that this new direction for NASA (one that notably lacks a name like the Vision for Space Exploration or the Space Exploration Initiative) marks one of the biggest changes in NASA’s history.

For most of NASA’s history, the agency has been driven by destinations and deadlines. Land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s and return him safely to the Earth. Build a space station by 1994. Send humans to Mars by 2019. Return humans to the Moon by 2020. Such goals, advocates claim, provide clarity to NASA, allowing it to focus on what’s necessary to achieve those goals, as the agency did with Apollo.

The problem is, though, that the agency has found it difficult to repeat the success of Apollo. The space station is being completed this year, 16 years after Reagan’s original deadline in his State of the Union address. At least it is being completed: the goals of the Space Exploration Initiative, including its humans-to-Mars goal of 2019, quickly fell by the wayside, and the Augustine Committee found last summer that, at its current funding levels, NASA might never make it back to the Moon, let alone do so by 2020 as President Bush announced in 2004.

“The fact is that we have been trying to relive Apollo for the last 40 years,” said NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver at a breakfast last week in Washington hosted by Women in Aerospace. “We have not been able to recreate that since, and I am not even sure that we would want to, given even that did not provide us with a sustained presence in space.”

A program focused on developing capabilities to enable human space exploration anywhere can look like a program designed to go nowhere when there are no specific destinations and deadlines set.

Instead, NASA is making a major break with the past by proposing a budget that focuses on developing capabilities—evidenced by the new technology R&D programs and efforts to develop commercial crew transportation alternatives—rather than destinations and deadlines, beyond Bolden’s comments since the budget’s rollout that the “ultimate goal” of human exploration is to go to Mars, at some unspecified future date. The logic in many respects is sound: if humans are to explore the solar system, they require a core set of technologies and other capabilities in order to do so effectively and with some degree of safety, tools that either don’t exist today or require improvement in performance or cost to close the case for such missions.

Bolden said in Congressional testimony that where we should go in space was not nearly as important as why. “If don’t know why we’re doing this, we may as well quit,” he said. “We do need a destination. That destination, ultimately, is Mars. But we need to know why we’re going there. We’re going there because the human species is incredibly inquisitive. We think that there is potential for life on Mars, or at least potential for people to live there… That’s the ‘why’ we came up with.”

However, for people used to the destination-driven paradigm, such a change can be jarring: a program focused on developing capabilities to enable human space exploration anywhere can look like a program designed to go nowhere when there are no specific destinations and deadlines set. A change that also results in near-term job losses in an uncertain economy and also a near-term loss of capabilities (in this case, the ability to fly humans to the ISS) only exacerbates the problem, making the situation look more like a step backwards than one forwards.

In their new book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, brothers Chip and Dan Heath describe the challenges of trying to introduce change in companies and organizations that can be very resistant to them. Like any good business book, they come up with a clever metaphor to describe the problem: the Elephant and the Rider. The former represents our emotional side, while the latter our rational side. For any major attempt at change to be successful, advocates of the change need to appeal to both the Elephant and the Rider, or else they’ll go nowhere. And that Elephant is awfully important, they write: “Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.”

NASA’s new plan has so far focused far more on the Rider than the Elephant. The arguments they’ve put forward for changing course have the backing of logic—the need to develop capabilities necessary for any kind of space exploration—as well as the cold, hard fiscal realities that make alternatives unaffordable. However, it has so far lacked an effective emotional appeal needed for it to be successful.

The opposition to the plan, particularly among some members of Congress, would not be surprising to Heaths. “But when the road is uncertain, the Elephant will insist on taking the default path,” they write. “Why? Because uncertainty makes the Elephant anxious.” The uncertainty inherent in the new plan—particularly with the lack of specific details in the days and weeks since its release—has certainly bred anxiety, as is clearly evident in the themes of the criticism of, and questions about, the new plan leveled at NASA in recent hearings: How many jobs will my district lose because of this new plan? (And will I lose my job in the next election as a result?) How can we rely on commercial providers to transport astronauts when none of them have done human spaceflight to date? Won’t we lose face to Russia and China by not continuing Constellation? How can we inspire kids to study math and science when the future of human spaceflight looks so uncertain?

NASA can counter some of this by providing more details about how it plans to implement this plan. However, this will appeal primarily to the rational side of people: the Rider, not the Elephant, in the Heaths’ lexicon. Instead, NASA and other advocates of the new plan need to do more to connect with skeptical politicians, business leaders, and others in the space community and the general public at a more emotional level, finding ways to assuage those visceral concerns.

“But when the road is uncertain, the Elephant will insist on taking the default path,” the Heaths write, refering to resistance to change by our emotional side. “Why? Because uncertainty makes the Elephant anxious.”

NASA and the administration appear to be inching down that path with Sunday’s announcement that President Obama will host a space conference in Florida on April 15. The purpose of the conference, according to a White House press release, is to “focus on the goals and strategies in this new vision, the next steps, and the new technologies, new jobs, and new industries it will create.” But it also provide an opportunity for the president to demonstrate his interest in the subject, which some fear has been lacking given the way the new plan has been rolled out—an emotional connection that could be vital to the plan’s long-term success.

Garver acknowledged last week the need for communicating the plan better, although she did not go into specifics about how the agency will do that. “I don’t feel that there’s tremendous surprise” within NASA to the budget proposal’s reaction in Congress, she said. “However, I do feel that we that, as we do a better job communicating with them and educating them about what we actually plan to do, that there will be more receptivity. I definitely feel that this is the kind of program that there will be broad support for over the long run.”

“If we are not successful with this budget,” she warned, “I think there is a very real risk that the growth that is proposed in this budget… will not be sustained if we aren’t able to come together at some point over the next few months and work towards common ground.” Finding that common ground will likely require more than appeals to logic alone.