NASA – join the club?

Groucho Marx famously said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” Here the search for where you belong is not just a horizon you can never reach, but one you don’t want to. As the world changes around NASA, there is no lack of similar questioning – what is NASA about, where is it going, and if it got there, would it want to join the club? The purpose of space exploration can be a bingo-card debate marking off everything from why to how, with who’s in the club thrown in for good measure. Blurring roles and objectives, mission and mandate, rather than recognizing these as distinct, creates more confusion.

Atop the blur is a budget reality. Last week, NASA’s budget for 2022 was belatedly approved, giving NASA 3.3% more funding than last year. This is in a year where inflation may well run at least twice that. It’s not just which club you want to join, it might be you can’t afford to join when you get approved.

Oddly, purpose does join the club, at least as the dictionary would define the word. An “end to be attained” has an ending. This view is at odds with a sense of purpose as a process that never ends. This is befitting, in a universe with no end. The exploration of space must be a journey, not a destination. Until we go down to how projects as action measure up against real purpose.

By late 2009 it was clear that NASA’s Moon program, then called Constellation, was not long for this world. The enthusiasm of just a few years earlier was gone for many, myself included. For others, there remained a strong sense of mission. I was an early advocate, as far as getting it over with. A simple throw-back using Space Shuttle hardware would prove a practical maneuver, a quick and dirty pit-stop given the Shuttles pending retirement. But in just a few years, budget realities and vagueness of purpose showed the fatal flaws of such thinking. Still, admitting error and exercising your right to learn was not in the cards for everyone.

Over in Huntsville, Alabama, a Marshall Spaceflight Center engineer expressed a typical frustration – “if NASA is not building rockets, there is no point to having NASA.” Following the breadcrumbs in a debate about NASA’s purpose in life finds fundamental disagreements over the meaning of purpose and mission.

If you believe building a rocket is your mission, you end up with a very different worldview from someone who thinks the task was to get to orbit over time more often and ever more easily. In turn, the later view gets usurped by science, where the real purpose is learning and the “aha” moment. Here, any rocket and everything about getting anywhere is just a means to an end. The only real purpose to it all is scientific discovery about Earth, our solar system, and beyond.

Administrators are not immune to getting pulled into this debate about NASA’s mission and purpose. Ask a NASA administrator about NASA’s mission and purpose. Don’t be surprised if it’s the moment where the candidate is asked why they want to be president. In 2010, NASA Administrator Bolden, asked about the shift to commercial launch, said, “my vehicles today are commercial vehicles.” In 2021 former NASA Administrator Griffin bemoaned that if NASA “seems to be evolving into a government bureau whose job it is to write checks to billionaire entrepreneurs,” then “there really isn’t a purpose for NASA.”

“you give up control, for something better.”

Yet, in both views, most NASA dollars have always gone and continue to go to private companies. In the one view, a changing relationship between NASA and the companies it contracts is merely a necessary twist, but the shift is an unwelcome storm in another. In one view, if the mission was never about control, the mission has not changed much at all. In another, control was the point. As a NASA Ames Research Center engineer was fond of saying when this topic inevitably arose – “you give up control, for something better.” No one fighting a war would ever say building ships was the goal, except in a view at the dock. A means and an end can be close, but it’s one that obviously leads to the other.

Accountability and responsibility rear their heads here, confusing matters by seeming to be one and the same. Yet anyone who has ever hired a contractor knows they may hold a company to account for a job well done, but it is you who are responsible in the end. Your home is yours alone and your responsibility, even as you may call others to account to get a job done.

“learn all that is learnable.”

There is no lack of official views on NASA’s mission and purpose. Learning goes with any scientific and research organization, for NASA more now than when it began. This harkens back to purpose as a process. Any end is always a moving target. Yet if your goal is to lead, the matter remains – how do I know where the front is? The pointy tip of the spear is a rocket to some, a landing to others, or none of these if like a Trekkian V’ger you must “learn all that is learnable.”

Any view on NASA’s purpose and mission will resolve where the devils in the details. An insider’s view is that of an ongoing battle, between the new world of commercial partnerships, firm fixed price contracts, and a focus on buying results versus a previous mindset of cost-plus contracts, paying by the hour for maybe something. Partnerships at the least accept a budget that is what it is, trying to figure out how to get ambitious results regardless. As far as being productive, that’s better – if risky – than insisting (or whining) about the good ol’ days and how such budget pressure shows a lack of commitment by Congress. Choosing to do what merely may fail to achieve your purpose beats doing what is guaranteed to fail.

Though among the details, directed work is where a sense of NASA’s broader purpose and mission can run aground. If you are given orders by Congress, these orders become your purpose. Not having worked backward from an overall mission statement, the chances the directions take you to any goal are dim. More so, the orders include how, where, and by who, as with many a cost-plus project (the SLS and Orion systems). Here the means becomes the mission, and the purpose becomes an output.

The space economy is taking a further hit, events with the Russian invasion of Ukraine adding problems and uncertainties. One NASA purpose has been to bring peoples together across the borders we do not see from space. For one relationship here, that mission is hardly ripe to flourish. As NASA budgets have effectively dropped in 2022 (after inflation), adding to the changing environment, it’s an excellent time to ponder NASA’s mission and purpose.

Understanding our planet and exploring our solar system and beyond has a point. Improved aviation has a point. Space stations where we might one day produce unimagined goods, from medical to materials, have a point. Learning improves lives. The matter is NASA having the flexibility to reach for the goal, even if it’s always trying to reach a horizon. And knowing and (mostly) agreeing on your mission and purpose helps along the journey.


Quotes about purpose:

If I move on, who does this?

Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, Avengers Endgame

Risk. Risk is our business. That’s what the starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.

Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek, Return to Tomorrow

The anomaly, my ship, my crew; I suppose you’re worried about your fish, too. … For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. *That* is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

Q, Star Trek: The Next Generation, All Good Things

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