Why is NASA Horrible At Implementing Space Policy?

In an article in the Space Review Is the US serious about space policy?  by Jeff Foust. He discusses a roundtable discussion of space policy experts titled “Challenges for Space Policy in 2009” in Washington last week. (The event took place under the Chatham House Rule, so that none of the discussion can be attributed to any speaker.) One speaker said “We’re horrible at implementing policy, absolutely horrible. We’ve got to figure out why we’re horrible.” There are several reason why the US is so horrible at implementing space policy these include the rush to engineering, pre-mature choice, and the discord between talk and action.

There is the rush to engineering instead of considering a larger long term plan. As the long term plan is developed elements can be considered. Each element needs to be carefully considered as to how it fits with other elements, and long term implications and requirements driven by the choice of that element. Then the best entire package can be chosen with the elements which bring the best options at the least cost for the entire package. The elements in the package should be chosen always remembering that good is the enemy of the best. This is often talked about in terms of the need to lower standards to only do good enough instead of the best possible solution which is often more expensive and takes longer. But I question this interpretation. The best solution can only be considered in terms of the larger plan. If pursuit of perfection in a single element means the project is delayed due to difficult engineering or cancelled due to cost overruns, or simply that other elements suffer than that was obviously not the best choice. The best solution is one that makes the whole project work best not the individual element. There are implications for every choice. Moving too quickly to engineering locks in choices and drives up costs. The rush to engineering is one reason why NASA is horrible at implementing space policy. (For more on the rush to engineering see The critical role of advanced technology investments in preventing spaceflight program cost overruns by John C. Mankins, December 1, 2008)

Premature choice is another reason why space policies have consistently failed. Premature choice is related to but different from the rush to engineering; they are however mutually reinforcing tendencies of NASA which have caused many cost overruns, delays and failed projects. NASA chose to replace the Saturn 5 with the Shuttle before the Moon Landing. Having put all its eggs in the basket of the space shuttle, NASA had to make it to work. Even when it became obvious NASA had bit off more than it could chew. We are still living with the consequences today. NASA needs to return to pattern of testing different options, it had before Apollo. The rush to the Moon with the all up testing of the Saturn 5, which actually worked, started NASA down a dangerous path. NASA needs to have a more Darwinian approach to projects. Testing options against each other in small projects before making major decisions for big projects. Premature choice is one reason NASA is horrible at implementing space policy.

Discord between talk and action is another reason why NASA is horrible at implementing space policy. For instance NASA says that the goal for Vision for Space Exploration is to develop the Moon but there is little work being done on insitu resource utilization. Use of resources is fundamental to any development. Using space resources is especially important because of the extremely high launch costs. Discord between talk and action is extremely detrimental to effective leadership and management since workers begin to question every directive wondering is management serious about this one are is this just empty rhetoric. One reason there is discord between talk and action is that there is always discord within NASA about what it should be doing. NASA employees tend to have their own dreams of space and ideas how to accomplish that but NASA as an organization tends to be lead by commands from outside mainly the White House, momentum, or great visions of what space exploration should be. NASA is not good at suggesting its own direction which is developed organically. So, there is always internal resistance to whatever is the space policy of the day. NASA has developed many methods to keep this resistance hidden, but this resistance still undercuts the implementation of space policy. The methods of controlling this resistance also stifle technologically innovation.

Space policy implementation at NASA is horrible because of the rush to engineering, premature choice and the discord between talk and action. The discord between talk and action, premature choice and the rush to engineering are all related. Rushing to engineering and premature choice mean that management may quickly realize they are not on the right path to achieve success but they can not change their rhetoric because that would endanger funding and force them it admit that mistakes were made. For NASA to become effective at implementing space policy they will need to change there culture to one of open discussion of long term plans before engineering begins, one of embracing lots of small scale testing and letting the results choose the path forward, one of striving for honestly matching talk and action. NASA is one of America’s greatest assets which has been less than effective lately, hopefully with change brought on by new direction and leadership NASA can live up to its potential.


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4 thoughts on “Why is NASA Horrible At Implementing Space Policy?”

  1. Allowing mistakes to be made seems a central concern, but it’s a cultural issue, and support for that has to come from the very top. Any indications which of the candidates for administrator would do the best job of improving that culture?

    • Allowing lots of small, cheap mistakes to avoid making big expensive ones. Also be allowing people to explore posibilities thoroghly, they will be less resistant to the path chosen because the know why the technical reasons their favorite was not chosen.

      I don’t know enough about the canidates to know this kind of philoposical detail. Who comes from an experimentation background as oposed to comand and control?

  2. This is a terribly large and important topic. A lot of people can say a lot of contradictory things about it, and often be right. Mere logic fails here, owing to the complexity of the topic. But I’m going to do a short try at it.

    NASA does poorly at space because that’s not their business. Their business is to function as a branch of the Washington bureaucracy, concerning whose objectives, see Winter-Berger, The Washington Payoff. With these deep political roots, an engineering organization is fatally handicapped. This is visible in what gets done.

    Looking at this from another point of view, the ecology of money says money goes to those most able to grab it first. The military with its forever agenda of “defense” thus stands first in line. Look at how the recent wars have paid-off to military suppliers, for an example of the military and money. Space has to make-do with the crumbs, in an environment of curious logic that space work costing 10% of a war is “unaffordably expensive,” but a war is so important and necessary its costs are held off the books for reason that secrecy about this is somehow needed.

    Looking at this from still another point of view, very few people realize how uncertain and violent this universe is that we live in. A small asteroid missed us recently. There is bigger stuff out there and one of those certainly is labelled, “Terra,” but from a public point of view, out of sight, out of mind.

    Finally, re “What is space for,” imagine an empty piece of ground. What is that for? Now put a house on it, or an industrial complex. Immediately, everyone knows what that piece of ground is “for.” In a like way, if we can just get some people and settlements and a business economy running out there, every one will know it’s obvious that “Space is for people.”

    And as far as I can see the future, NASA as a branch of Washington bureaucracy, goes its way not much affected by physical reality. I think it’s doable that non-Washington people can find a way out to space, and do settlements there. And that’s how it will have to be.

    Grump. — Martha Adams, 2009 Mar 12

  3. I think Martha Adams understands why nasa APPEARS to be a failure. 😉
    Look at what IS happening in space — nothing. Give nasa credit for doing its job; after Apollo, they’ve managed to flush every good spacecraft design they’ve ever touched, being a good gatekeeper of space. It has been totally successful at keeping civilians earthbound.
    Nasa’s a sad deceitful political sham that has to be circumvented for civilian space access to happen.
    It’s absurd, trying to help them to “get it right,” they know what they’re doing.
    The only answer is to fight whomever it is who orders the gatekeeper to keep us on the ground. There’s the rub.


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