The best laid schemes of NASA

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!

Robert Burns, On Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785.

This was not my first rodeo. Word had spread that I was familiar with strategic planning. It had been a while, but the predictable invite to a kickoff meeting came and I accepted. This was some time after the end of the Constellation return to the Moon program, when the path immediately ahead had changed but the longer-term direction would mostly persist on its original course. There would no longer be an Ares I “stick” rocket for a crew capsule placed atop a Shuttle solid rocket booster. As well, any near-term date for the end of the International Space Station was gone from future plans. Practically, and near term, the cancellation of the Constellation program was merely the end of one project to develop a small stage and engine that went atop the Ares I Shuttle derived solid rocket booster. Even so, the engine program would be funded a few years longer. As was the norm, plans were routinely dusted off. Teams would review and refresh what had come before. This was one of those teams.

Many books laid out covering the floor, assorted NASA plans.
COLLECT THE WHOLE SET! NASA vision documents, strategic plans, technology plans, spaceflight plans, center plans, master planning and implementation plans, 1986 through 2005. After 2005, printing was severely restricted and these documents continued in only electronic formats. Credit: Edgar Zapata, zapatatalksnasa.com

I first became involved in long-term planning in NASA when the future was Space Shuttle flights as far as the eye could see. It was the early 1990s, the Space Station was coming (though not yet international) and the Shuttle manifest was booked years out. It would be a while before the realization hit that the Shuttle manifest, the schedule for what launches when, was filled with space station payloads unlikely to show up as planned. Right now, if the lack of a “vision thing” was a flaw, this was just something more to fix. The circumstances at the time allowed some heady plans, roadmaps with a dissection of the differences between why, what and how. Not being binding, plans had a latitude that could only come from assuming they were merely fodder for stirring a stimulating picture of tomorrow. Confirming this, early teams were filled with post-Challenger new hires, in retrospect a sign the assignment was seen as harmless.

Eventually there were presentations. A place is not a plan. A place is a destination. Going to the Moon or Mars was an objective. Strategy was something else entirely. In all cases, a strategy was not a particular rocket, that was technology. Finally, this all required asking why many times, purpose and mission at the top of the edifice.

The passage of time was not kind to these plans. I was eventually on more teams drawing up NASA plans or roadmaps, labeled one or the other by how specific. All these plans saw ample review. The teams collected comments and made comments to the comments (with little modification after). After the cycle was complete came the awards (I received a couple) culminating in some very inviting, glossy, magazine style decor for the coffee tables in all the front offices. I never could come to discard the books, placing each one on my shelf right alongside all the others.

The trouble with plans

File:Tribble prop.jpg A picture of a tribble, a small furry ball of a creature from the original series TV show Star Trek.

Plans are like the tribbles from Star Trek. Initially rather comforting, trouble as they procreate. As a rule, attempts to improve plans that came before meet a resistance proportional to the age of the plan. From experience, and too much optimism, a small cadre at Kennedy Space Center grew quite familiar with all these variations on planning and the rules. That experience was not always effective, every then current purveyor of a plan having much less latitude than the prior.

Experience said to begin with the common tack of converting a plan into the plain English of why, what and how, versus the typical word salad only large, complex organizations think reads fine. Yet this tack failed surprisingly often. Eventually this is how something wanted became something planned, or a means to the end came to be called an objective on a par with the end itself. Concrete sets strong and only gets stronger over time.

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Miraculously, although perhaps predictably, all these NASA plans did create value – in planning. Dwight D. Eisenhower is quoted as saying “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Process can be belittled, especially in a start-up silicon-valley “just do it” mind-set. Patience for plans can be short when it seems planning more means doing less. As hard as it may be to admit though, if there were ever some forceful thinking about the future, arguments and some raised voices, and a consensus after all was said and done, you were just in a planning meeting. As with writing, engaging the whole brain and little forgiving of being vague, or lacking a clear start and end, planning forces along difficult questions. Even the shortcomings of plans and what is not written survive in the experiences of those who were planning.

Recently, NASA leadership offered up a simple, new vision for space exploration. Things to-do, what may come as a result, and why, are all rolled up into an elegant handful of lines from the head of NASA Human Spaceflight. The exploration of the solar system is not a small number of thoughts to reduce, leaving just the cream. There is the usual mix of purpose (return benefit to Earth), objectives that are a means to an end (commercial spaceflight, coalitions, partnerships, sustainably), goals (deliver more-more), and why (new discoveries, knowledge).

  • NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate “Vision for Space Exploration”
    • Make commercial human spaceflight to low-Earth orbit a robust, sustainable enterprise with many providers and a wide range of private and public users
    • Build a coalition of partnerships with industry, nations and academia that will help us send astronauts to the Moon quickly and sustainably, together
    • Deliver more missions, more science, more technology, and more innovation at a better value to the American taxpayer
    • Make new discoveries, expand human knowledge, and push human presence deeper into the solar system
    • Return benefit to Earth

According to @KathyLueders of NASA, here is the updated vision for human exploration at the space agency. pic.twitter.com/yHWjmzPW0R — Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) April 29, 2021

As to that meeting on plans I found myself in at Kennedy not too many years ago, that would turn out to be for a review and a cleanup for plans already out there. Nothing new was expected. These times called for a refresh, not planning, or re-planning. Perhaps another day. So, as we wrapped up, I managed to steer clear of the job, too many balls in the air at the time and all that.

Since then, still more plans have come and gone. In all this there is a natural temptation to mull about the best laid schemes of mice and men, as if we are the mouse whose nest has been turned up in Burns’ poem. A nest turned up, over and over. The farmer recognizes the kinship, plans and life as easily turned up for him. Perhaps the mouse and the farmer should have seen NASA’s plans? Right along, there comes the temptation to read a lot into what’s in today’s space exploration plans. Hanging one’s hat on a particular word, or even better a whole phrase from such pronouncements, is a bureaucratic art form. In the end it is certain the plan will change. But as with previous NASA visions and strategies and plans, a finished plan may not be the point.

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3 thoughts on “The best laid schemes of NASA

  1. My familiarity has been with the KSC Master Planning documents which reference a preferred future governance model where NASA and DOD are only tenants on a Spaceport complex managed by an independent authority better equiped to manage a mulit-user spaceport than federal agencies. That theme has been showing up in every plan since at least the early 2000’s when KSC, the USAF and the Florida Spaceport Authority (predecessor of Space Florida) did a joint master plan.
    It has been a consistently articulated vision for the future. But now the Space Force and the FAA are pursuing that model for the CCSFS, for all the reasons it was deemed desirable decades ago, but KSC is adamant it should not be pursued now.
    As you mentioned in this post, some plans are doomed to remain as just that, a plan. Sigh..

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  2. Ahh yes. “Master Planning” was one I left off the list. I didn’t put the “ASTWG” baseline report in the pile for the picture (among others). See:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20200213172820/https://public.ksc.nasa.gov/NextGen/Spaceport

    We had a notion back then of an evolution toward many, and mostly, non-government customers, but it’s only with time that the actual investment and maturation model has become specific, with clear steps. There is still a ways to go. Partnerships, commercial acquisitions, and why this is necessary. Something tells me this vision of a spaceport with governance like an international airport will come around again. Inevitably. I hope in our lifetime.

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