During @bobby_braun’s receptions this week, Charlie had his last chances to dig into the “School Kid” for being so young. There is something profound, however, about relatively young leadership at NASA. Bobby is a generation of leaders whose first memory of NASA was not the Apollo landing, but of the Viking landing on Mars. It was this feat that inspired him to become an engineer and work at NASA. He is part of a new class of leaders at NASA that were inspired not by the Moon program and competition with USSR, but by robotic exploration and the Space Shuttle program.
Technically, my first memory of space was receiving a Space Shuttle alarm clock from my father (now, why a 6 year old needs an alarm clock I don’t really know). however, my first substantial memory of space is of being shuffled into the elementary school auditorium and witnessing the Challenger disaster. I don’t believe this affected my psyche as a 7-year-old, but it does paint a picture as to the real events and space experience that average 35-year-old-ish people have: Challenger disaster, the unprecedented discoveries of Hubble Space Telecsope, another tragedy with Columbia, and yet more unprecedented discoveries with Mars Exploration Rovers (MER). “Failure is not an option” was a popular slogan for the NASA of the 60’s, but the NASA I grew up with lived that term year-to-year. Hubble launched a failure and required follow-on missions to become successful, and engineers at NASA have kept the MER rovers alive an order of magnitude beyond their design lifetime. The NASA I know learned from its failures and earned its successes as a result.
There is an opportunity to harness the shifting external environment (i.e., technological leadership in other domains that can feed into the aerospace community) to create a new aerospace sector and a NASA that will emerge in the 21st century. To be relevant, NASA needs to change how it does business, and the result will not look the same as it did 50 years ago. To some that is a tragedy, but to me, it is necessary to be an executive branch agency focused on the future.
The majority of those that influence NASA – internal employees, the Executive Office of the President, Congress, and large contractors – seem to be focused on today, with an eye longing for how it was. The longer we do this, the more we waste a talented workforce, prolong the status quo, and delay a new aerospace sector. Creativity loves constraint: space activities inspire and attract brilliant people to invent new solutions to unique constraints. What we need today are more activities, actions and opportunities for others to be involved (see NASA’s Space Technology Program). By holding onto the image of what NASA was, we lose precious opportunities to leverage a changing world and new technologies, to lower the barriers of entry into space and open it up for new entrants, new approaches, and new innovations.
“As I see it, questions about the Vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not.” – John Marburger, Science Advisor to President Bush, 2006
There are many people inside and outside NASA that see themselves in a variant of this future, generally recognizing that space != NASA, and that NASA’s role in today’s world should be to catalyze and support the new aerospace sector.
This future requires leadership from generations that recognize failure as part of any world-changing endeavor, and celebrate it as part of NASA’s DNA. Two critical aspects to this are through support on the Hill, and through opening up and changing how NASA does business. This is the NASA that I see; this is the NASA on the cutting edge, a NASA that celebrates diversity of thought, and a NASA that boldly embraces its fate by shifting its role to create a more desirable future.