07/02/2013 04:58 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

A Strategy for NASA?

Last week, the House Subcommittee on Space released a draft of their proposed NASA Authorization bill, which lays out in law NASA's goals and objectives over the next three years. The House bill opposes the White House's proposal for NASA to capture an asteroid and put it in orbit around the Moon. This is the third major tectonic shift in NASA's top-level objectives in the 10 years following the 2003 disintegration of the Shuttle Columbia as it turned to Earth.

The Columbia disaster sparked a debate about NASA's purpose and strategy. Yet, too frequently, the word "strategy" is thrown around with zestful abandon to mean tactics, plans, vision, mission, goal, objective, budgeting, methodology, or anything that involves deciding how to allocate resources going forward. The increasingly arbitrary use of the term "strategy" vastly complicates the task of evaluating the agency's options.

On one front, decision-makers argue about the destination to which astronauts should be sent to spark a space race-like sense of purpose. Meanwhile, others petition Washington and NASA alike, asking that the space agency direct its efforts to address a narrow scientific question or parochial interest. This kind of advice cannot generate a clear sense of purpose for the space agency, let alone an understandable and easily articulated strategy.

This torrent of advice has hobbled NASA's strategic planning. Like so many of the plans mentioned in a February 5 post in the Harvard Business Review blog by Roger Martin, NASA's strategic plans essentially amount to a budget with "lots of explanatory words attached." By contrast, a true strategy informs vision and mission, providing a algorithm for planning specific future activities and linking those plans together into a coherent, purposeful whole.

Even when strategic thinking is not discussed openly, an organization's strategy can sometimes be inferred by closely examining vision and mission statements that the strategic thinking has produced. In NASA's case, the clues provided by the agency's vision and mission statements imply an underlying strategy that NASA cannot openly announce. Rather, it is the emergent, implicit strategy that has arisen from decades of NASA's institutional experience.

NASA's current vision is "To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind."

NASA's current mission is to "Drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth."

A December 2012 report by the National Academies NASA's Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus ( notes:

"Both the NASA vision and mission statements are generic statements that could apply to almost any government research and development (R&D) agency, omitting even the words 'aeronautics' or 'space.' NASA's current vision and mission statements do not explain NASA's unique role in the government and why it is worthy of taxpayer investment. The non-specificity of the vision and mission statements is a contributing factor to the confusion about NASA's overall strategic direction."

The report is correct in finding that NASA's vision and mission statements yield little obvious guidance about the agency's direction. However, the nebulous nature of these statements reveals NASA's emergent strategy. NASA does have a strategy, but political considerations discourage the agency from coming right out and announcing it. NASA's true strategy can be described as: Find a way to continue carrying out activities in the current NASA portfolio while operating in a climate of austerity and uncertainty, with erratic and contradictory guidance from its leadership.

There now seems to be a general consensus supporting robotic (and probably human) exploration beyond LEO. Nonetheless, at the highest level, NASA's activities still appear to be constrained by a number of factors:

  1. NASA's budget is and will continue to be limited for the foreseeable future

  2. Continuity of guidance from Congress and the White House is unlikely. Nonetheless, NASA can probably expect a measure of long-term continuity for select major programs with congressional support.

  3. NASA's base of public support, while broad, is shallow. Space activities (and especially budgets) are very poorly understood by the public. Therefore, NASA has to have a little something for everyone at all times to maintain the current level of public engagement.

  4. Domestic economic factors (i.e. jobs) and matters of civic pride are going to tie NASA to a handful of congressional supporters for the foreseeable future, none of whom NASA can afford to alienate.

Navigating these constraints is made more difficult because of the nature of the guidance that NASA so often receives. In particular, NASA is often called upon to send probes or people to certain destinations or generate specific benefits, any of which may be changed at a moment's notice in response to political shifts.

At first glance, specifying destinations to reach or benefits to seek would seem to be obvious ways to inform NASA's strategic thinking, but both approaches are problematic. First, destinations for their own sake are poor goals. An agency whose purpose it is to send people to a given address for the first time soon finds itself at a loss once the destination is reached. Establishing access to some location becomes the entirety of the mission and lacks further meaning or purpose. The appropriate question is not where to send people and robots, but what should be done with them once they arrive. If the only objective is landing someone someplace to plant a flag, one destination is as good as the next.

The second approach -- describing NASA's strategic direction in terms of a shopping list of benefits to be obtained -- has also proven ineffective. Space activities have been and will continue to be tremendously costly and hardware intensive. It is difficult to justify a robust exploration program based on a specific benefit alone. The Apollo program prompted revolutionary advances in microelectronics, but it is fair to ask if sending a person to the Moon was a necessary part of a program to improve electronics.

Confusing the many beneficial outcomes of a space program with a strategic direction is a tempting but serious mistake, even though such benefits should inevitably arise from a robust program of exploration. An agency geared toward achieving as many benefits as possible cannot devote sufficient resources toward slowly and methodically building up its capabilities and infrastructure for the future.

The people giving NASA direction have essentially instructed NASA to focus on creating strategy that can overcome austerity and sudden changes in direction and priority without having to abandon long-term and highly complex programs. Yet, NASA cannot simply be turned loose with a pile of taxpayer funds - no agency can operate without accountability to the public and oversight by elected officials.

The way to solve this is to change the kind of guidance NASA is given. Rather than focusing on destinations or desirable side effects of space activity, NASA should be tasked with an open-ended and continually renewable mission that does not hinge on a specific location or outcome. One approach is described in a December 2012 report by the Space Foundation, "Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space" which suggests that NASA focus on "pioneering." As defined by the report, "pioneering" consists of "being among those who first enter a region, in order to open it for use and development by others" or "being one of a group that builds and prepares infrastructure precursors, in advance of others."

The Space Foundation report described this concept (and the associated doctrine) in greater detail. At its heart the idea is that NASA is the agency that does the hard and difficult early work necessary before others in government or the private sector can easily and effectively make use of space. The questions the agency must then address when developing a strategy become more reasonable: Can anyone else make use of a given destination? What needs to be done before others can make use of a specific location? Will further exploration reveal additional opportunities and risks at some destination? These questions are ones that the space agency is well equipped to answer and, in turn, present to political leadership as an array of options.

In the current paradigm, the primary driver animating NASA's top-level decision-making process is pure uncertainty: NASA is compelled to defend and carry out very complex technological missions without adequate budgetary and leadership stability. NASA is one of the few government agencies that generates exciting and inspirational good news as a matter of course. The nation would be much better served by encouraging NASA to continue doing so, rather than debating and micromanaging details about how NASA is supposed to meet its goals.