OpEd: NASA, Entrepreneurs Need Each Other

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One of my mentors taught me that how you present your message is every bit as important as what you say; that being right can end up being irrelevant if the presentation does not strike a chord with your audience. At the same time though, a group that is resistant to change and defensive about criticism can be all but incapable of accomplishing truly great things.

Those two realities strike me as particularly relevant to the debate about whether and how NASA and the space industry will realign themselves to accomplish the president’s Vision for Space Exploration and carry the country forward to the Moon and Mars.

Being a young person in aerospace — a rarity in itself — has presented me with a unique perspective. I have had the privilege of working with and listening to some very diverse and very talented people, both in the space advocacy community and the mainstream aerospace industry. While it is clear that all of us believe in our country and believe that space has improved the lives of all Americans, there are substantial divisions. Of these, perhaps the most striking revolves around the relationship between NASA and the private sector in developing space.

In examining these issues we need to look at the context of the current situation. By now it is clear to all that the space shuttle’s time as the workhorse of the U.S. civil space program is growing short. How soon the shuttle actually retires will dramatically influence the fate of the international space station and in turn impact the pace and extent of exploration beyond Earth orbit. But NASA must negotiate these challenges within limited budgets and on a reasonable schedule.

Failure to achieve affordability and sustainability could mark the end of this human exploration program and possibly of human space exploration as we know it; some have even suggested that failure now could result in the dismantling of NASA itself.

It is clear that things will have to change if the vision is to be achieved. Actually implementing new concepts, however, is going to be very difficult. Though we like to think of aerospace as innovative and cutting edge, this is in fact a very conservative industry: cautious, risk averse and slow to consider, let alone commit to, new concepts.

Openness to new ideas is quite limited, and the reaction to external critics overwhelmingly negative. This type of mindset is exceedingly dangerous at a time when change is critical to survival.

It is precisely at times like this, when things are at their worst, that the voices of dissent are the most important. NASA needs all the help it can get, and sometimes the voices that have the most to offer are the harshest. In cases like this, genuine disagreement is a positive thing that needs to be embraced and subsequently addressed. The way NASA has done business in the past will not work if the challenges ahead are to be met. The only solution is genuine innovation and this means taking real stock of those who have been the most critical of the agency.

And therein lies the problem. Many of the advocates who call for further development in space, who see space as a frontier to be explored and one day settled, and who have made careers out of trying new things in space, find themselves shut out.

In response to the perception that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears, these people cheer at the launch of SpaceShipOne and the emergence of companies like SpaceX, but not for NASA. Indeed, much of the negativity that is often associated with the space advocacy movement comes from the virtual wall separating the voices of dissent from the voices in power. That this is the case is a failure on the part of the agency to reach out to a valuable resource.

The space advocacy community is rife with innovation in the truest sense of the word. Many of the genuine space entrepreneurs that are trying to remake this entire industry had their beginnings as space advocates. This is not to suggest that larger more established operators cannot innovate as well, but for any sector to be healthy, there is a need for out-of-the-box thinkers. Simply, NASA needs the space advocacy community and the unique entrepreneurial spirit that it brings to survive; not simply for it s political might or public relations abilities, but as a source of new ideas and solutions to the daunting challenges ahead.

At the same time the space advocacy movement has a long way to go toward realizing its potential effectiveness. The voices of many space advocates are often shrill and biting, spending more energy complaining than proposing solutions. Similarly, to say that the packaging of some of this community’s messages is poor is something of an understatement. Nor is all content offered up of the same value.

To be sure, not everything that comes out of the space advocacy community is useful, but there is clearly real and relevant input that NASA would do well to heed. That the poor delivery of such messages often overshadows the good content is truly unfortunate, because these loud, overbearing and sometimes offensive voices are the ones that an industry in flux most needs to hear.

NASA has been making progress in this area of late. Now is the time for strong, forward-looking leadership combined with a genuine openness to new ideas. Success will depend upon melding new ideas and new concepts with proven techniques and established principles, all under a tight schedule. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has worked hard to try and do just that, announcing his intent to pay for the delivery of crew and cargo to the international space station on a commercial basis while accelerating the development of the new Crew Exploration Vehicle. These steps, though positive, represent just the beginning of a move away from the manner in which NASA traditionally has done business and towards a general rethinking of how the agency and the U.S. space industry should put people into space.

In some of the cases where NASA has begun to move in the direction advocated by the space advocacy community, there has been very positive feedback.

NASA’s new willingness to show some faith in the ability of new, small companies to do jobs that are “c ritical path ” is a huge step.

This is only the beginning of what can be achieved when NASA and its contractors engage in a functional dialogue with the less traditional industry innovators. For their own part these new industry players need to make their events and forums for discussion a more welcoming place for NASA and it s traditional contractors.

Success in the future will depend upon frank and open discussion between all of these parties. The fact of the matter is we all need each other. Now more than ever, NASA and the space sector generally need new blood, new ideas and new players.

At the same time the space advocacy community needs the structure, strength and credibility that NASA and other established players in the community can bring. In the year ahead many of the questions that will determine the future of this nation in space will be decided. Failure to incorporate all of our strengths into answers will result in our failure. This is an opportunity we cannot miss.

Jeff Feige has a strategic and space policy consulting practice in Washington.