“Unfortunately, I’m too overextended right now to be useful.” This worked, while not being a lie, getting me out of assisting on the year’s strategic planning document. Or, as the case was – a strategy slash roadmap slash implementation slash plan slash something about technology and what NASA will do to get where it wants to be. In truth, I would have gladly added the work to my pile on another day because it was critical, and I believed I had much to contribute. Having been recruited into too many of these teams to count, my number still came up when the constable yelled, “Arrest all the usual suspects.” I got out of the task this time, as I did the year before.
NASA’s strategies and plans have a deserved reputation for being akin to holy Roman empires, which were neither holy, Roman nor empires. Similarly, and not a sin unique to NASA, large organizations publish strategies and plans that are neither strategic or plans. NASA has published all manner, level, and type of plans, goals, and objectives. There are the NASA ones, the ones for human spaceflight, others for NASA centers, and my favorites – the vision ones. The last ones read like the chosen climbed a mountain and spoke to a burning bush, leaving employees like myself to interpret the holy words.
You are large and ambitious, and people want to know what’s next. So, you must strategize and plan and have objectives and a vision. It’s no one’s fault the facts on the ground are often at odds with a mandate to make sense of your actions – and worse, to write it down in English.
This is all much more difficult than it should be, saying more about NASA and the barriers around it than about its dreams. Dreams, in the plural, because there are many voices inside and outside NASA with a say in anything including the word strategy. If it’s graduation day, this is the moment the keynote speaker asks the graduates to be clear about their goals and ponder their direction to bring them about. You should not confuse why with how or dilute these with what, when, who, and where. The latter will come about with attention to detail, but they can and will change. So be flexible, especially when reality, technology, and innovation create the need or the opportunity.
Likewise, hardware is not a plan.
The heart of a strategic plan should be to clearly state your ambition, then boil down your sense of the best bets for achieving it. “How” is the keyword. It’s not about where you are going, the Moon, Mars, or Earth’s orbit. A destination is not a plan. It’s not about the details of what you do to get there, a capsule, a nuclear rocket, or a warp drive for that matter. Likewise, hardware is not a plan.
A typical NASA strategy document (or its kin, plans, and implementation) arrived in a lovely, glossy brochure. The heavy-weight, quality paper smelled new, exuding promise. The content did not much change as these became electronic documents never to see the light of the US Government Printing Office. The electronic versions read like their decorative coffee table book ancestors. The upper portion of each two pages was a picture of an astronaut as she floats weightlessly aboard the Shuttle. Below, the two-column format in a business font went on about the wonders of space. Page after page listed endless accomplishments. A small picture with an even smaller illegible font on the opposing page showed the editors trying too hard to break up the visual look and feel. Altogether, these books read like beige paint, only not as exciting.
As usual, there is a mix of why, how, and what and everything else, everywhere, all at once.
This brings us to the recent “NASA Moon to Mars Strategy and Objectives Development.” As usual, there is a mix of why, how, and what and everything else, everywhere, all at once. After decades, if you’re a stickler for the difference between why you do something and how you will achieve it, you must still wait. By the numbers, half the document is appendices, and of the main half, a third are objectives. Curiously, but not unexpectedly, the table of contents does not have a section labeled “Our Strategy” to which a lazy reader might jump. A hunt reveals this is no oversight. Though there is a noble attempt to distill a strategy saying – “An excellent systems engineering process is the strategy by which the endeavor will be achieved, and, alongside teamwork and partnerships, will enable resilience in human spaceflight over time and across budget cycles and administrations.” If this is about doing the right things right, this is the part about doing things right. Unfortunately, the plan skips over the part about the right things.
Encouragingly, this plan appears to be acutely aware of the shortcomings of prior plans. The graphics lean toward a hip, infographics style with a funky twist. When else would we see a NASA plan that repeats a figure of a steampunk rocket that is half-built, held together with rivets, and having taken a few too many hits. This rocket has duct tape, speaking to the challenges ahead in the plan.
The report honestly admits to a “Moon to Mars Roller Coaster” – a ride too many NASA employees rode till they turned blue and lost their breakfast. The awareness is refreshing. Yes, finally, someone wrote that down – and approved it for publication. But because we had to ruin things, we got the words “Federated Board Targeted Review,” just as I stood ready to say you had me at architecture.
With rare exceptions, most teammates on these documents, from lower level to center to spaceflight, to all of NASA, knew the limitations of the task. Your job is to keep everyone’s crayons inside the lines, except the lines randomly shift. Though some defended projects as purpose, and landing humans on another planetary body as ends in themselves. I saw this as resignation born from cognitive dissonance, posing as a Zen moment.
These documents tackle the impossible, and the latest Moon to Mars document continues the tradition. NASA must join up what is happening with flashy goals, never stating each fell in its lap in no particular order. In a rational setting, a long, hard look at your goals comes first, a sense of direction follows, and then you go down into the details. When the plan meets reality, planning, meaning changes, must follow. The goal should remain steadfast.
It will be no surprise to see more of these publications in years to come, more NASA strategy or Moon to Mars strategies and other plans. Continuing the conversation is mandatory, for NASA, if not for everyone called to the task. These documents mirror the struggle to unite goals, actions, and reality, from technology to physics – and no one said it would be easy.