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Make Pioneering NASA’s Purpose

On Dec. 4, the Space Foundation released the report “Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space.” Based on a year of research and analysis of the U.S. civil space enterprise, a review of more than 40 years’ worth of data and the candid perspectives of more than 100 space leaders, the report’s main recommendation is almost startlingly simple: NASA needs a clear, unambiguous purpose.

It’s the same maxim that every truly successful organization — corporate, military, government or, for that matter, volunteer — follows: Decide on and then be unmistakably clear about what it is that you do. And it’s the concept that created NASA’s “glory years” when the agency did the impossible and put a man on the Moon.

Drawing upon what we learned in our research, the Space Foundation also has recommended a purpose for NASA: pioneering.

Yes, boldly (and efficiently) going where no one has gone before — so that others may follow. The pioneering doctrine we recommend is a solid process that reaps rewards for our economy, our national pride, our industrial base and our future generations.

Simply put, we believe that NASA needs to engage itself with four things, all designed to open up new worlds and new knowledge:

  • Access — developing the ability to get to and from targeted destinations.
  • Exploration — learning about those destinations in order to plan for subsequent missions.
  • Utilization — turning theoretical knowledge into technology that justifies continued, longer-term activity at the destinations.
  • Transition — handing off the knowledge and capabilities NASA has developed to other government organizations or the private sector for further long-term engagement.

You may note, as you read the report — which you can find at www.spacefoundation.org/research/pioneering — that we have recommended what NASA should do, but not where it should go. Thinking in terms of missions rather than purpose is one of the issues that have impeded NASA. Debates of “Moon vs. Mars” or “human vs. robotic” create factions and obscure the real underlying purpose of having a space program.

Pioneering is a purpose for the long term, one that is never finished, one that builds upon its successes, one that continually fuels scientific discovery, inspiration and success. We believe that once you embrace the doctrine, the decisions of where to explore, when to explore and how to explore become so much easier. And each decision doesn’t automatically redefine your organization.

Within “Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space,” we define the pioneering doctrine in detail and lay out a number of strategic and tactical recommendations to create much-needed budget and management stability and correct underlying structural and cultural issues that constantly put NASA at the mercy of political and administrative change. Some repeat what others have recommended; some give a new nuance that may not have been considered. All are intended to leverage NASA’s considerable strengths and remove the obstacles that have plagued the agency for decades.

Through our report, we are stimulating discussion. We’re pleased at the response so far and are working to keep the dialogue going with the hope that it will lead to meaningful, positive change.

Of course, we didn’t start this conversation — it’s been going on for years. The number of reports and recommendations we reviewed is staggering — and many hinted at some of the same recommendations we have made. But many were focused on a crisis or an issue that needed an immediate fix, thus limiting the scope of the research and the recommendations. Our luxury was that we were able to rise above specific, day-to-day issues and instead look at root causes and big-picture solutions.

Plus, because the Space Foundation is an independent organization, we were able to interview a broad range of experts with a promise that their individual comments will not be attributed, resulting in incredible candor. Not everyone we talked with offered the same solutions we recommend, but most pointed in the same general direction.

Our recommendations reflect what we heard and gleaned from a rich pool of information and opinion. That research also underscored many beliefs we have long held at the Space Foundation and showed us that many others feel the same way. Among them:

å NASA is an extraordinary organization for which many, many people have a burning passion — we want NASA to succeed.

å NASA’s issues, while not unlike those faced by other government entities, create particular challenges for the type of long-term, groundbreaking work the agency does — while difficult, they should not be insurmountable; if corrected, the agency should be able to flourish as it once did.

å The ethos of trailblazing and paving the way for discovery is what America, and NASA, have always really been about — returning to those roots is good for the country and the agency.

“Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space” is an honest, good faith attempt at the broadest and most favorable win-win solution for everyone involved — NASA, the United States, the global space industry and our future generations.

As I said, this is a dialogue. We want to engage as many people as possible. We know that the kind of change we are recommending could be a lengthy process, but we’ll do all we can to move the discussion along. We invite everyone — especially those who are passionate about space, discovery and NASA — to send thoughts to the Space Foundation at [email protected] or via social media. The more voices we hear from, the better.

Of all the explorable and interesting places that exist in our solar system and beyond, we have barely begun to imagine the future that awaits us in space. A laser-focused purpose of pioneering can set NASA, the U.S. and the world on a sustainable course of leadership in space.

 
Elliot H. Pulham is chief executive of the Space Foundation.

Article Comments

The concept and clear definition of "Pioneering" in your report is commendable. One of the foremost parts of pioneering in early America was finding and maintaining paths through the wilderness. Pioneers came to participate in creating and later depended on a network of trails, private turnpikes, and public roads and canals. The same should be true of the present. When the Erie canal was finished, transport costs for inland goods such as grain from Buffalo to Albany went down by a staggering 100 times. The moment the "golden spike" was set at Promontory Point marked a similar decrease in transport costs for goods and passengers across the entire continent
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The biggest barrier to reaching space goals is the lack of affordable space transportation, so the biggest goal to support pioneering at present should be efforts to foster much cheaper transport, both to and within space. Reducing costs a few 10's of percent will not cut the mustard. They need to be reduced by 100 times if possible.

Again, the biggest barrier to cheap space transport is the lack of re-usable space vehicles. This issue is the proverbial ignored elephant in the living room. I would like to see a major initiative, named after a famous pathfinder, such as explorer James C. Fremont or engineer and surveyor Theodore D. Judah, to stimulate private development of both re-usable boosters and re-usable vehicles and stages in space.

If the transport costs can be reduced, more than one goal can be accomplished and more than one destination can be reached.

John Strickland

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