Planning, for space exploration, development, and commerce

Back in 2007, the NASA plan was to go back to the Moon by 2020. This is not to confuse anyone with current plans to return to the Moon by 2024, which might be 2028 or sometime later. Rather, this was the older plan as NASA launched its Shuttles on their last missions. Except there was a problem then, dooming that plan. The problem was still there years later, as the NASA administrator admitted – “we don’t have what really would be a valid strategy that the common man would accept.” This had hints of Albert Einstein’s saying – “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

NASA, 2007.

NASA’s lunar plans around 2007 were multiplying like rabbits. Among my jobs at the time were some far-term cost estimates, meaning far from the big show fighting fires in the center ring.  Still, everyone playing my role of cog in the machine was asked what they thought about the bigger picture. These were always valuable opportunities for anyone to offer their 2-cents.

By then, I had learned a thing or two on providing feedback to projects, especially how no one ever got their suggestions adopted if there were too many, too detailed, or too far away. Obviously, we were told there can’t possibly be that many errors, details would shake loose along the way, and anything far away will come with time. That’s all a project’s way of telling everyone too much feedback must be nitpicking, and the review is merely a formality. It was also a handy way to reject about 99% of the suggestions. Having seen this behavior before, instead, I stepped back and pondered the whole plan. There was an error glaring right at me – where was our outpost?

Instead, my suggestion work on a lunar outpost must begin a bit before any landing, 2020 or otherwise, was rejected, without much explanation.

NASA, 2007.

If your goal is a sustained presence on the Moon, for various reasons, you should start work on an outpost just before the first landing in 2020. Technology takes time, and your plan should help keep your eyes on the prize. That avoids having all the goals down, but only half a plan. Amazingly, the outpost was missing in more than a few places. So, that was my comment, but prettied up in formal lingo and submitted to correct what was probably an oversight. More likely, the reply would be a name, enlisting me to help fill this in. That was also another project behavior bordering on cliche; beware of identifying problems, as you will be drafted to resolve them.

Instead, my suggestion work on a lunar outpost must begin a bit before any landing, 2020 or otherwise, was rejected, without much explanation. At one point, the comment was called “out of scope,” a government agency’s way of saying they only wanted comments on what was in the plan, not what was missing.

Regrouping, I could not help but wonder if what we were looking at was some mild plan. Or maybe these were goals, with plan-flavoring? Perhaps this was plan-ish. As well, the word “notional” was spreading on NASA charts faster than black mold. Was this a notional plan?

Months later, work on a lunar outpost starting just before a first landing in 2020 was added to the plan. The single chart could easily be confused with a “big plan,” showing the cost of everything up to the first lunar crew landing. This was just one of the Constellation program’s many “sand charts,” the ones with the atrocious primary colors in layer after layer of money and time.  Some of these escaped into the wild. None of these plans were memorable, but the notion a long-term plan did not need to plan too far definitely was.

NASA, Sept. 2008.

This puts some context behind the remark’s years later from our NASA administrator – “we don’t have what really would be a valid strategy that the common man would accept.” That “common man” would want to see the essential pieces, like a lander or an outpost. If you knew enough to be dangerous, you might also ask where the spacesuits were.

In defense of the process, a “plan” is many things to many people. If you are of a certain generation, the jokes were about the Soviet Union’s 5-year plans. Potatoes anyone? Or rather, fewer potatoes this year than last. More so, this was about people and what drives us to get things done. Today’s bad press about plans comes from start-ups, espousing their virtue and an accompanying bias for action. Then comes the anecdote about SpaceX where Elon Musk reminds a new employee they don’t need to plan. They need to “just do things.”

Poor plans were quickly confused with fuel villagers could use for a bonfire as their reality deviates from promises. So obviously, such fuel was to be avoided in the future.

NASA, 2021.

Ironically, a government agency can’t help but plan. Budget documents look out 5 years after all. If the budget does not arrive according to plan, the little-known secret is it’s not that difficult to quickly re-plan. This mostly means delay, rolling tasks over, given the approved budget is concrete that has now set, leaving little wiggle room. Unfortunately, this simple year-to-year adjustment of plans does not happen. The reasons are many, and there’s no denying the complexity of what’s involved. That would be like denying the complexity in some physical principle like least action. It would also be pretending we understand that principle, enough to explain it simply.

This meanders into the confusion between a plan and planning. In my time at NASA, I grew fond of the term “situational awareness,” a recognition of how little a project really controlled, all while being asked to put on the smiley face of optimistic goals. Situational awareness was my way of saying, at least there would be planning, which is everything (I imagine even at SpaceX.) This is not to be confused with plans, those transitory snap-shots of moments in time, two parts optimism and one part fact. Situational awareness is all about planning, knowing where you are, acutely aware of your surroundings, driven by a desire to “understand it well enough.”

“…asking our leader in spaceflight about this, his rather lengthy reply ended with how there was “no advantage to having a real plan.”

Eventually, I showed more patience than most for gathering up people and their numbers and adding them all up in a language that simulated English. So, I was asked to provide a formal “strategic analysis” of the lunar plans in 2008. (Remember, provide a comment, and you get drafted to go fix the problem. Projects use this as a deterrence to getting too much advice. It’s an effective tactic, except for a rare few who were raised to never let go of a question once asked.)

My attempt at offering situational awareness was not received well. For people that would easily fit in at the Vulcan Science Academy, I found that while everyone agreed I had stayed in character, leadership had not (not even close). To top it off, sometime after, I would be the sole dissenter when a verbal roll call was taken on proceeding with one of the major plans. Only in retrospect is this funny in the same way I laughed as a child at Wile E. Coyote with the train coming – that does not stop.

The Constellation program with its lunar plans was canceled a couple of years after my presentation. The real casualty of this was planning. Poor plans were quickly confused with the fuel villagers used for the bonfire as their reality deviated from promises. So obviously, such fuel was to be avoided in the future. (This is an excellent example of learning the wrong lesson. Shoot the messengers.) Long after, asking our leader in spaceflight about this, his rather lengthy reply ended with how there was “no advantage to having a real plan.” If there was to be a bonfire again one day, we would at least not provide the fuel or light the match.

From NASA Human Spaceflight Scenarios, Do All Our Models Still Say ‘No’?, my 2017 look at plans, planning, and scenarios for the future of NASA human spaceflight. In the scenarios where NASA models say “yes”, any prior step must significantly drop in cost once operational to make any next steps possible. Otherwise there are no next steps. And there are many steps on the way to exploring to the ends of our solar system! Perhaps even one day beyond.

Soon enough, 2024, or 2028, or soon after, will imitate the oncoming train illusion. The dates will seem far away, then suddenly, they will be on top of us with our lunar plans, public or private. As with Mars, a generation away when I arrived at NASA, the decades fly by, but the train does not arrive. Admittedly, across teams, centers and agencies, NASA, and industry, I never heard it said plans or planning were necessary to know a goal was unlikely. On the other hand, good planning to get us closer to our goals can’t happen if planning is seen as just bad news. Instead, real planning is possible if it’s embraced for its advantages, increasing awareness, and fostering an unflinching look at our challenges. These challenges span space exploration, development, and commerce, all linked. Along the way, planning might even help understand what’s happening well enough to one day explain it simply.

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