The great American inventor Charles Kettering said, “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” Despite the fact that many of his inventions and much of the progress he brought were focused on fuels and engines for terrestrial vehicles, his statement could not be more applicable for progress in the nation’s, and the world’s, space vehicles.
Today, the world watches as the U.S. space community debates the changes proposed to the course and vision of NASA. Understandably, the debate focuses on the transition risks and a fear that these changes mean certain and inevitable failure for the United States.
It is true that change must be managed and these risks must be fully addressed before they become realities, because failure is not an option. Unfortunately, the tenor of the current debate has prevented consideration of the seemingly obvious benefits of the proposed changes or a discussion of lessons learned from past experiences. Analyzing these, the NASA decision to move as quickly as possible toward commercial solutions can be more likely seen to bring progress. In taking a look at our past, this decision offers several benefits for the future of space exploration and space applications.
First, the new vision attempts to apply lessons learned from the Department of Defense’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) experience. The Defense Department and industry made assumptions regarding the creation of a commercial market that presumed that the nature of commercial demand would look exactly like government demand. As the recently released Center for Strategic and International Studies draft assessment of the commercial launch market shows, today’s market and the U.S. commercial launch providers remain unable to stimulate sufficient commercial growth. This lack of success demonstrates that processes, systems and infrastructure designed solely around U.S. government access to space, and without true commercial buy-in, will always sub-optimize sustainability of the long-term markets and the supporting industrial base. It should also convince us that the government, left to itself, has little motivation to innovate and will typically forgo opportunities to create the improvements that stimulate new demand or improved, cost-effective systems. Addressing these lessons, the NASA plan properly involves commercial perspectives starting at the design phase of development, in turn creating the foundation for sustainability and progress well into the future.
Second, the plan challenges NASA to think of the future world differently from the past world in which it thrived. A national treasure, NASA has provided the country with much prestige and accomplishment. However, the world has changed a lot in the last 50 years, and large bureaucracies often fail to keep pace. Today’s world has seen unprecedented growth and acceleration in technology development. It is not clear that NASA has changed along with it, even with — or, as some suggest, in spite of — its historic and successful past. NASA must find a way to remain relevant in the future. The new NASA vision attempts to shift the culture within the organization, breathing fresh perspective and creating a foundation upon which to build. The commercial option is just the first uncomfortable but necessary move for NASA as an organization in this context. Some argue the mission is too important to take that risk of disruption and course change. I believe it is too important not to do so.
Finally, the new NASA plan creates excitement and hope outside the communities of scientists and amateur space observers, fostering much-needed energy that will pay dividends for years to come. My career, as that of many others, involves space because as a child I dreamed of becoming an astronaut. I saw the explorers both as the heroes they were but also as people simply doing “something really cool.” In America, where a child can set dreams high, I, along with every other 6-year-old, wanted to do “something really cool.” The forefathers of space exploration were revered. They inspired millions because in completing their missions they proved that anyone could do it — their successes meant the possibility that any 6-year-old could grow up and go to space. Unfortunately, this dream has not become true, and the fire that space once flamed has been reduced to embers; getting to space has become a reality just for a few. The new NASA vision emphasis on commercial solutions provides the potential for today’s 6-year-olds, and possibly for yesterday’s 6-year-olds, to once again get excited about doing “something really cool,” opening the door for many more to become involved in the next generation of explorers.
With the debate raging, as Kettering suggested, some of the world may look on only with a hate for change, but many of us see the chance to bring progress. As anyone will tell you, including the NASA administrator, the plan is far from perfect. Certainly, discussions must take place at a national level to address concerns over the industrial base, workforce issues and mission accomplishments. Moreover, a valid transition plan must be put into place and risks must be mitigated. However, to progress these legitimate and important issues, the tone of the debate must change. Stakeholders must lay balance to the risks with the many benefits. NASA’s new vision and its reliance on commercial solutions are a good first step, asking us to consider the past as we look to the future. If Kettering is to be proved right yet again, this and several other changes will be key to progress for the future of the U.S. space endeavor.
Josh Hartman is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former director of the Pentagon’s Space and Intelligence Capabilities Office.