NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, speaking at the 34th Space Symposium April 17, said NASA needs to do a better job at risk management and making decisions faster. Credit: Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews

COLORADO SPRINGS — In his last major speech as NASA’s acting administrator before retiring, Robert Lightfoot said he believes the space agency needs to do a better job assessing risks and making decisions in order to carry out its exploration plans.

In a keynote speech at the 34th Space Symposium here April 17, Lightfoot, who is retiring from NASA at the end of the month, said he regretted not doing more during his 15 months as acting head of the space agency to improve how it make decisions.

“I really think what we have to do is get better at assessing risk and decision velocity,” he said. “This is an area that, frankly, I didn’t make as much progress as I thought I would.”

One problem, he said, is that missions are often sold on their benefits, but once under development, the focus shifts to their risks. “By the time you get to the launch pad, all you’re talking about is risk. You’ve kind of forgotten about the benefit of why you started this,” he said.

Making mistakes, he said, are inevitable, but can lead to a burden of new processes put in place to avoid repeating them. “Sometimes I worry — and this is what I was trying to attack — that it becomes more about the process than the product,” he said. Those new processes, he added, get applied to every future program, whether or not they are truly applicable.

He also said that decisions are slowed down because information on various options and their risks isn’t brought fast enough to key officials. “The elevation of risk to senior leadership doesn’t happen fast enough,” he said. “That processes crushes decision velocity.”

Lightfoot said he questioned if NASA, given its current mindset towards risk and decision-making, would have been able to carry out some of its most historic missions. “I worry, to be perfectly honest, if we would have ever launched Apollo in the environment we’re in today,” he said. “Would we have ever launched the first shuttle?”

Lightfoot raised his concerns after discussing the “Exploration Campaign” NASA is proposing in its 2019 budget request, which includes development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and eventual human missions to the surface of the moon. That concept emerged from a 45-day study NASA performed last year at the request of Vice President Mike Pence at the first meeting of the National Space Council.

“The exciting thing for me personally is that I’ve been a part of many of these studies before and they usually just end up on a shelf,” he said. “The vice president personally engaged in this.”

If that Exploration Campaign is to be successful, he said, NASA will need to take a different approach to risk analysis. “I think what we’ve got to do to accomplish the Exploration Campaign I shared today, and, I think frankly, any of the high-risk areas that we’re working on, is require what I call an ‘eyes wide open’ strategy,” he said. “Leaders need to poll what’s going on and then we need to make decisions.”

That requires, he said, a shift from “risk management” to “risk leadership” in agency activities. “From a risk management perspective, the safest place to be is on the ground,” he said. “From a risk leadership perspective, I believe that’s the worst place this nation can be.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...