NOTE: This is Part one of a two part post….
In December of 2012 the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction, in response to a congressional mandate, conducted a study and published a report entitled; NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus. The mandate for their deliberations and report was as follows:
…..Notably, the committee was not asked to deliberate on what should be NASA’s goals, objectives, and strategy; rather, it was asked for recommendations on how these goals, objectives, and strategy might best be established and communicated…..
The question put before the committee was not what NASA should be doing but rather how NASA’s goals, objectives, and strategy might be established, presumably in a manner that will gain the support of stakeholders, including the public.
Vignettes from the Study…
The committee began by referencing the enabling law for NASA for guidance on what the agency’s role is in government. Their evaluation was;
For the United States to be a leader in space, as required by the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, it must be a country with bold ideas, science and engineering excellence, and the ability to convince others to work with it in the pursuit of common goals. Leadership depends on the perception of others that whoever is in the lead knows the way forward, is capable of forging the trail, and is determined to succeed despite inevitable setbacks…..
So NASA is supposed to be a (as opposed to the) leader in space. However, NASA’s role is not to develop the strategic direction itself as it is a federal executive agency, it is the United States (presumed by the NRC committee to be the government) that must come up with the bold ideas, science, and engineering excellence and then convince others of this and lead into the future.
The strongest statement of the committee is that the government has not come up with a strategic plan that provides this leadership or that has the support needed to be successful. Their first conclusion and recommendation is;
Conclusion: There is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA. Absent such a consensus, NASA cannot reasonably be expected to develop enduring strategic priorities for the purpose of resource allocation and planning.
Recommendation: The administration should take the lead in forging a new consensus on NASA’s future that is stated in terms of a set of clearly defined strategic goals and objectives. This process should apply both within the administration and between the administration and Congress and should be reached only after meaningful technical consultations with potential international partners. The strategic goals and objectives should be ambitious, yet technically rational, and should focus on the long term.
So there is no consensus on our strategic direction and objectives for NASA and thus the agency will continue as it has for a while now, muddling along with the various stovepiped interests within the agency continuing to fight for their individual agendas. The recommendation is that the administration and congress should work together to develop one a strategic plan but in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the current relationship between the branches of government this will be difficult.
This is obviously a recipe for continuing floundering because as the report also observes, NASA does not have the money (as the Augustine report also noted) to do what several presidents and NASA have said is the most important goal (not strategy, goal) for the agency which is the human exploration of Mars. So the question becomes, is there a means whereby a consensus can be developed that comes from the outside of the government but is adopted by the government?
Where the NRC report Went Wrong
Referring back to the mandate of the NRC committee, its mandate was to establish how this national consensus and strategy might be established and communicated. In their recommendation that a space policy be developed there is a continuing flaw in the philosophical underpinning that equates space with NASA and the development of a strategic direction as sole the province of the government as it relates to the civilian space agency. Here is what the report says in this area….
…….If the United States is to continue to maintain international leadership in space, it must have a steady, bold, scientifically justifiable space program in which other countries want to participate, and, moreover, it must behave as a reliable partner.
The above sentence in its implication says that a scientifically justifiable space program is the only means to continue its international leadership in space. This has been the underpinning of all NASA related strategic thinking for the past thirty years but is it still tenable, is it still complete to say so? It is my opinion that the answer is no and indeed it has never truly been the case and to think of space through this narrow lens is actually the reason that we have been unable to come to any kind of national consensus on space. The key word in their mandate is national consensus, not just a presidential fiat or even a consensus between the congress and the president. If we are to move forward toward a national consensus we must look beyond the scientific justifications for a space program and look at the broader aspects of national interest to underpin our reasoning.
Toward a Spacepower Theory of the Space Economy
In the years 2005-2008 I was associated with a research and writing effort carried out by the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University (NDU). The result of this effort was a multivolume book called Toward a Theory of Spacepower. The book was a set of carefully selected essays on the subject of spacepower theory, which is the theory of how the environment of space is a realm for the actions of nations and non national actors toward furthering their own interests. The book was commissioned by the Secretary of Defense and is constructed taxonomically in the same vein as Clauswitz’s Landpower theory, and particularly in the vein of Mahan’s seminal book on Seapower theory called The Influence of Seapower on History 1660-1783.
This was a fascinating effort and I learned much about how people outside of NASA think about the subject of space. Its about worldview and whenever the word “NASA” is used a certain worldview is imposed that then further defines all discussion on space. However, if you impose the worldview of power theory and then look at space, something vastly different emerges, something that could be useful in developing a national consensus regarding space. The reason that this can provide a firmer foundation is that the military theoretician, especially those that take the viewpoint derived from Mahan that actions of states (and private economic interests) to proactively operate in and protect their interests at sea (in our example space) helps to build the economy of the nation, which then increases the wealth of the people and thus builds a firmer foundation for the state itself.
The first essay in the “Toward a Theory of Spacepower” by Jon Sumida goes to the heart of building a workable premise for a national discussion on space policy. This premise formulated on the basis of a Mahanian political-economic outlook, which is far beyond simply building a strategic plan for a federal agency like NASA and helps to reformulate Mahan’s seapower theory questions into the space realm.
In his essay, Sumida reformulated the Mahanian seapower questions and concerns into their space analog as follows:
• What is the economic significance of the development of space activity, and to what degree does future American economic performance depend upon it?
• What are the security requirements of space-based economic activity?
• What role should the U.S. Government play in the promotion of space-based economic activity and its defense?
• What kind of diplomatic action will be required to support space-based economic activity and its defense?
I would posit that the mandate of the NRC study of how the [national] goals, objectives, and strategy might best be established and communicated….. is best addressed by answering the questions formulated by Sumida and not by an a-priori statement that a scientifically justifiable space program is the basis for the administration and congress to deliberate our future in space.
Brevity a posting in this type of format precludes going into these questions in this missive, but the follow on posting this will go into Sumida’s questions, using my own chapter in Toward a Spacepower Theory as the basis for my argument.
(you can read ahead if you want as the link to the spacepower theory book of essays is linked above).
How would you the reader answer these questions?
Part II, Broadening the Scope of a National Space Policy///