A review of the ASAP review of NASA

Predictably, reports by committees read like a meeting with a few people speaking all at once. Why say something simply when saying it five ways keeps every contributor happy their suggested sentence remained intact? Yet even with this expectation going in, this year’s NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) report is a refreshing read, saying many things relatively simply, directly, and often. And these are things that need to be told. The lingo is the usual aerospace-speak, but the message is clear. In plain terms, space exploration is changing as the world is changing around NASA, so NASA must change. This change is necessary for NASA to continue to matter. The time is now. NASA’s budgets are what they are, limited, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. All this is especially important if NASA wants to go further than ever before, to the Moon or beyond. Increasing ambition and stagnation don’t do well together.

Helpful.

When it came to assembling reports by committee, I was usually too slow to step back from the line, so it seemed I had volunteered instead. There are always difficulties in assembling reports on dry, obtuse topics. It’s only worse when cobbling together the sentences and never-ending edits while reaching for a coherent whole as everyone’s focus is just a tiny part. So, assembling a report was usually a fail. My goal was to write one instead (which is no surprise to those reading my musings here.) By chance, my last big task at NASA before retiring was compiling a report for DARPA on the XSP program’s lessons learned. So, it’s easy to appreciate the difficulty of keeping the kernels of wisdom simple, direct, and on target – and I admire it when it happens, as with this ASAP report.

Recursion is a thing, as it has fallen to a committee of experts to note that at the end of the day, a mission to the Moon should not be done by committee, or worse, many informal committees with no actual charters.

Ironically, a criticism of the committee is NASA running its major programs as if by committee – “the Artemis campaign is not established formally as an “Artemis program”… In other words, there is no clearly defined leader of the enterprise.” Recursion is a thing, as it has fallen to a committee of experts to note that at the end of the day, a mission to the Moon should not be done by committee, or worse, many informal committees with no actual charters.

There is no lack of ideas about the changes NASA must embrace. Queue Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’. However, the ASAP report avoids getting into these changes too much, focusing on a more fundamental question: Why change? Previously, I’ve written about what might work and how, if NASA’s mission to explore space is to go further, faster, sustainably – and stay.

What is necessary for NASA to go further on its budgets (which inflation has eaten into over decades)? First, each step we explore beyond Earth, first getting to orbit, then staying, must get cheaper to allow any next step.

How might we make this so? NASA got cargo to the International Space Station after the Shuttle ended with public-private partnerships, to great success – resulting in the Falcon 9 and Antares launchers and the Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft. These were all had for bargain-basement costs (as NASA costs go.) NASA plans to repeat this approach to keep and grow the number of people in space when the International Space Station ends one day. If there is a poster child for “how” to spend future budgets and produce results at a pace that advances far faster than inflation can claw it all back, public-private partnerships are it.

More so, the ASAP report repeats a mantra about a need for a strategy at multiple levels, the importance of asking “why” NASA must do what it must do, including adapt, innovate and change. If you are pulling a cart in many directions, it’s unlikely to make headway in any. This tug of war is also unsafe. “Ignoring the external forces and environment in which the Agency must func­tion will place NASA in a tenuous position going forward, which in turn will impact how safely and successfully it will be able to carry out U.S. government missions in space.”

After asking “why,” there remains “who,” as we hear, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” (but we have to look anyway).

None of this is new, yet it bears repeating. It takes only 2.8 minutes after we start a program’s lessons learned document before someone says, “aren’t these really lessons not yet learned?” These moments were always opportunities to ask “why” an issue arose and “why” it had proven untenable – and not for the first time. “Why” is always a good question to start with and just as valuable along the way. Yet here is where this helpful ASAP emphasis on vision and strategy is incomplete if it’s only “to understand and manage risk in the more complex envi­ronment in which it will be operating.” After asking “why,” there remains “who,” as we hear, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” (But we have to look anyway.)

This review of the ASAP review of NASA projects and programs is really just a review of a review. Was the review “helpful”? For the ASAP report, my answer is “yes”. The ASAP looking at NASA projects is Siskel and Ebert providing thoughtful movie reviews. Except here, the fans see only snippets of the movie at a distance, and the ASAP reviewers only as much as they have time for. And no one ever really gets to see the entire film. If you have come this far, reading a review about a safety panel review of NASA’s projects, you are in the same boat, and we are all fans. But the actors or the director can hardly be credited or faulted for every part of a movie. Similarly, a discussion about NASA has to talk about the studio executives who decide which films get green-lighted. If anyone pretends they know what drives a decision-maker on what movies get made, you might be surprised it’s not economic return, or any other analysis, ever. And this could also be the case with NASA projects.

Here, the one shortcoming in the ASAP review bubbles up, with the ASAP putting NASA alongside its stakeholders – too often as if one and the same. Naturally, the notion that a critical NASA mission needs strategy and leadership is like saying the collection of NASA movies needs an overarching vision and control. True and worth emphasis. But any latitude to bring about that coherence must be encouraged and allowed by stakeholders in Congress before it can become direction from the Whitehouse. Or stretching my analogy, actors can only do so much with the material they are given. So, in the future, what gets green-lighted, by who, and the script, must be part of any review to really get at questions about NASA’s future. And the NASA mission universe will be the better franchise for it.

2 thoughts on “A review of the ASAP review of NASA

  1. I was actually eagerly awaiting your take on the ASAP report. I totally agree it’s not quite like all the others and I would add…from what I saw with the development of the CCP, the end of the Shuttle Program, and the recent EPOC RFI, this has the potential to be a truly transformational inflection point kind of moment for NASA. Or…another door stop.

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    1. Yes, it’s hard to figure out when words matter, or for that matter when ideas take on a life of their own, including a critique from a group like the ASAP. “Inflection points” could be due to ideas reaching a critical mass of a sort, and some of those are critiques. The best I think we can do is create that feedback loop, and being the optimist, hope NASA investments will create the future the fans want – a kind of fan service for sure, but it’s not going to happen unless the fans out there do the reviews.

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