The View From Here

The View From Here: Innovating Our Preferred Future

Written by: developer

The View From Here: Innovating Our Preferred Future Like the famous truism that characterizes pornography as something “you can’t define, but you’ll know it when you see it,” the word “innovation” is being volleyed about the space industry today as some kind of generic panacea for lean, difficult, underfunded times.

Certainly there is an element of truth in the notion, especially if we embrace another truism, “necessity is the mother of invention.”

If you subscribe to chaos theory, then the tumult of today’s government space programs (let us not forget that the commercial sector of our industry is doing very well, thank you very much), may well present the opportunity to innovate our way from uncertainty to order. Webster’s dictionary defines innovation quite simply:

in*no*va*tion  noun  \ˌi-nə-ˈvā-shən\  1: the introduction of something new  2: a new idea, method, or device : NOVELTY

Clearly, innovation has been the province and product of the space community since Sputnik first beep-beep-beeped its way around the planet. Indeed, the Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame® and Space CertificationTM programs were created to enshrine the innovations and innovators our industry produces, and to shine the public spotlight upon them. Given the tens of thousands of new technologies that have come out of the nation’s space programs, the hundreds of entirely new industries created by our national investment in space, the asymmetric advantage it gives our national security community, and, frankly, the fact that space is now the critical infrastructure underpinning pretty much all of life as we know it – why all the current angst?

That giant sucking sound from Washington, D.C., might have something to do with it.

As the federal government spirals deeper into debt, the pressure on defense spending, and discretionary spending, is becoming palpable. Don’t take my word for it – just ask Joint Forces Command. National security space programs are sometimes accompanied by sticker shock, and when programs are delayed, drawn out or encounter technical difficulties, the manufacturer’s suggested retail price skyrockets faster than a tricked-out Corvette on a Chevy dealer’s lot. As essential as these programs are to the security of the U.S. and its allies, despite the unsurpassed capabilities they give us in our chaotic and unpredictable world, they can become attractive targets for those looking to “find” money to pay down the national debt.

And there is no credible way to argue your case when your program is years behind schedule and/or billions over budget.

Finding innovative ways to ensure that none of our critical space programs comes off the tracks is, therefore, essential. And as keenly as we examine the hardware, we must also examine the software – in this case, not just the ones and zeroes, but the people. To say that large, inefficient government space bureaucracies have evolved (is it really evolution?) over the years is to say that the sky is blue.

Everyone has their favorite anecdote. Perhaps it is the NASA example where one person turns a wrench to torque a bolt on a space shuttle, another person supervises, another person supervises the supervisor and yet another person checks and double-checks the paperwork: four people to turn one bolt. Or maybe it’s the oddity of comparing how many people it takes to launch a government EELV to how few it takes to launch the same vehicle on a commercial mission. Then again, perhaps it is a procurement system that can change direction as the wind blows, driving untold billions in additional contractor costs, which of course get passed along to the taxpayers.

Certainly, mission assurance is critically important – especially when human lives or fantastically expensive national security systems hang in the balance. But how many zeroes are really required after the decimal point? Do we really need four people to torque one bolt? Is it simply a reflection of our litigious and increasingly risk-averse society?

“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”  – Woody Allen

It seems to me that innovation is an inherently creative process and, by definition, requires that we do things in different ways. Whether in war-fighting, exploration or in the commercial markets, innovation can have a startling, disruptive effect upon the status quo. Some amount of risk is implied. Innovation cannot be “inspected in.”

Mission assurance and operational excellence are things that matter, and certainly areas where changes in culture, processes, organizational structures and best practices are likely to produce cost savings. But there’s a fine line between innovation and incremental improvement. It’s not just about trying to squeeze yet more blood out of the same old rock. As a fundamentally creative undertaking, innovation requires a spontaneity and flexibility in proposing solutions – a collegial, informal and highly communicative relationship between the government customer and the contractor that seems to have been driven out of the relationship by a rigid and highly prescriptive acquisition process.

Some would argue that the efficiencies of process improvement are “soft” innovation, which begs the question: Why should the country really encourage a renaissance in space innovation?

I believe the answer to that question needs to be something like this: ‘The United States recognizes that innovation in space technology holds the key to national security, economic prosperity and global leadership. Our nation is committed to innovation in civil, commercial and national security space as a key strategy to enable our preferred future.’

We need to move beyond innovating new ways to do the same old things, and seriously focus on creating the space technologies, tools, explorations and organizations of the future. Government, industry, academia and allies all have unique, interdependent roles to play.

I’d suggest we need to start by discontinuing insane behaviors – defined by Einstein as doing the exact same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Since the Space Shuttle orbiter fleet became operational, how many programs has NASA fielded to develop a more capable successor? Single Stage to Orbit, Two-Stage to Orbit, X-33, DC-X and Constellation programs all leap to mind, and I’ve probably missed some. How much did those programs alone cost the nation? Very, very conservatively, about $23 billion. And how many were killed or cancelled before flight vehicles were built? ALL OF THEM.

We’ve spent a fair amount more than an entire NASA annual budget on now-cancelled programs to replace the Shuttle. Or if we think about it another way, we can just about assume that one nickel out of every dollar that goes to NASA can be thrown away right off the top on Shuttle replacement programs that will only be cancelled.

We all know that we face a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education crisis in the United States that threatens our leadership in the world. But, frankly, what space innovations and explorations have we offered our children to motivate them to study hard and reach for the stars? It’s very difficult to reach for the stars when you are stuck in low earth orbit for two generations. And it’s impossible to get out of low earth orbit if every new program for human-rated spaceflight is stillborn or killed every time there’s a new Congress or Administration.

Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

If we are truly going to innovate our way out of the Eisenhower-era paradigms that govern life as we know it in the space industry, we need more than a new national space policy, a cheerful commitment to process improvement and a generally sunny disposition. What the United States needs is a focused and driven national space strategy. Like any good strategic plan, it needs to begin with a brutally frank SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) – what we might call a fearless and searching inventory. We need to set goals, define objectives, establish timetables, commit resources and put stakeholders on the hook to perform. Our strategic plan needs to come in a tamper-proof container, with a non-political process for updating the strategy on a recurring basis as part of the package.

We have done this before. The Manhattan Project was extreme high-stakes, high-risk innovation with clear, strategic purpose. The Eisenhower Interstate System was a strategically directed innovation that successfully revolutionized transportation and the U.S. economy. The Apollo program was a strategic response to the perceived threat of Soviet ideology.

A national space strategy could certainly be crafted to “enable our preferred future” by advancing technology, stimulating economic enterprise, inspiring a renaissance in STEM education and earning anew U.S. respect and leadership around the world.

Since we’ve done this before, I’m not sure it’s really innovation.

But, the view from here is, I’m pretty sure we’ll know it when we see it. 

This article is part of Space Watch: November 2010 (Volume: 9, Issue: 11).