On the matter of NASA, supply chains, and time

Some years after the loss of Columbia in 2003, one of our interns focused on NASA’s spaceflight supply chain. Naturally, if you’re talking about a topic, he figured it would be a good idea to start with a definition of what he’d learned. “The NASA spaceflight supply chain is a bunch of groups and organizations,” he said, “that sometimes come together to work on what may be common goals or other objectives.” We immediately declared him “a genius” and “a fast learner too!” Unfortunately, the soon-to-be MIT grad did not join us at Kennedy. But, as best as I recall the words, his loose definition lived on, making the rounds well before “supply chain” became such a pair of household words today.

“The NASA spaceflight supply chain is a bunch of groups and organizations that sometimes come together to work on what may be common goals or other objectives.” 

Now, NASA has an Artemis program, at least as a flag under which it gathers around its human spaceflight projects – those “groups and organizations that sometimes come together.” Yet, it may come as a surprise to hear that, really, NASA has no such Artemis program. That is, Artemis does not exist in the sense of an office or a single responsible person in charge of all the parts of a plan to get NASA astronauts back to the Moon. This lack of a formal, central office, where the buck stops here, is by design – or as NASA leadership said, “This was done by design to lower NASA’s expenditures.” NASA’s inspector general also points out, “Artemis is not a formal program.”

NASA Office of the Inspector General report 2021

Not that NASA hasn’t tried herding all its cats and flying monkeys. We ran this experiment a long time ago. Years after we began focusing on that new “supply chain” thing (new for NASA anyway), NASA started its previous return to the Moon effort. Then, quite the opposite of today, the Constellation program had formal and singular leadership. But any congratulations for the clear lines of command were scarce as snow in Florida. In good part, this was because Constellation leadership was not in charge of much at all.

To be fair, when you control little if anything or feel you don’t, a NASA program is about being chained, not supply chains.

In an infamous 2007 memo from the program’s leader, the world was told the program did not control resources, which came “from above” (we are left to assume this means Congress.) We also find out that how NASA will get to the Moon is also a done deal. First, there will be a small rocket, then this big rocket, a space capsule, a lander, and so on. It’s all vintage Shuttle, same people, same bat channel, same bat time. The program is not in charge of design much either, it turns out. This leaves the schedule, and we were told, “We will finish when we finish.

The memo especially throws shade at reviewers, independent boards, and all the people looking ahead, which at this early stage were already pointing out that a program that finishes, well, whenever, has a big problem. After any reviewer went that far or probably just got it out of the way before jumping into details, nothing they said next mattered. The short version of most of the bad news was that when time is the only variable that’s not set, it sets itself. Taking too long to finish means likely to be *overcome by events*. Which is to say, over short periods, decisions can move forward and be realized. Still, over a long time, there’s a high likelihood of change after surprise after more changes in the outside world, rendering your effort obsolete.

…described as Spock speaking to -a very high-level program manager- who literally got red-faced with anger.

We found out then how having a formal program to centrally bring together projects into a much larger supply chain is not a quick fix, and it’s a thankless task. [Disclaimer: By the summer of 2008, I was one of those messengers serving up bad news, with a side of beautiful graphs, in what others described as Spock speaking to -a very high-level program manager- who literally got red-faced with anger. The audience reviews included “something I never saw in all my years at NASA!”] To be fair, when you control little if anything or feel you don’t, a NASA program is about being chained, not managing supply chains. A central office becomes a single lightning rod for everyone’s lightning. You have all the downsides of working a vast and complicated supply chain and none of the upside that comes with being able to, or allowed, to zig when zag won’t do.

It’s not that difficult to see where someone sprang to the solution – eliminate the single lightning rod, decentralize, and provide multiple, smaller targets for your detractors. As our NASA intern said – these smaller groups might even sometimes work together. Just maybe.

Imagine supply chains so gnarled up that your provider says “whenever.” Wait – we don’t have to imagine. We have these already. That airline you purchased a ticket from to get you to Maryland? Well, you know the price. And the airplanes are the same as always. But now you find out at the airport that as to your arrival time, that’s whenever. As we enter year three of this pandemic, this is also the supply chain for the shipping industry bringing goods into Long Beach. It’s the parts your service technician needs to fix your fridge. It’s the chips car manufacturers need to build their cars. Surprisingly it’s baby formula too, and tomorrow, probably something else we don’t see coming. It’s also a shortage of grains, as a crop sits and Ukraine defends itself against invasion by Russia. When might these supply chains re-organize, like traffic on the internet re-routing to new paths avoiding bad servers? Whenever?

“It’s the supply chain thing” is too familiar a refrain nowadays. The least paid employee in a store, asked about a missing item, and the highest paid employee offering blurbs to the press, both know two handy words nowadays – supply chain. There is also no lack of reasons for supply chain disruptions – from companies with monopoly pricing power, in no rush to create more supply, to the pandemic breaking supply chains, to the challenge of putting that supply chain Humpty Dumpty together again any time soon.

Who would have thought, after the end of the Shuttle program, continued industry consolidations, and dismantling organizations (all the review ones were the first against the wall), NASA and the private sector share so much in common? Having once had a formal program pulling together the whole supply chain to get NASA back to the Moon, we’ve gone full circle to no program without noticing a difference. In an experiment, that says something. Have we chosen to turn a knob that’s not connected to anything?

NASA leadership is turning other knobs in recent years, partnerships for one. The reviews here have been much kinder than 15 years ago – partnerships during development, and services when operational, being more likely to add up. Though, as every little bit helps, we should try those other knobs we had way back, too, hooking them up right this time as well.

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