Today the BBC asks, “Could tensions over Ukraine hit space?” The answer: absolutely, but NASA has not behaved like the master planner it should be with missions stretching far out in time. If NASA had effectively, and I say effectively because I can’t believe somewhere in NASA somebody didn’t run a scenario planning project that pointed out the need to develop contingencies for the agency’s reliance on Russia, the agency wouldn’t be facing a potential crisis in space.
What we know: the US uses Russian made engines for the Atlas V Rocket. The US uses Russian space craft to fly its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Tensions between the US and Russia continue to rise with no end in sight.
In scenario planning, an agency like NASA wouldn’t just look at the risks associated with space, but at the politics and economics as well. With the grid-lock in Congress, NASA should have put America’s near-term tactical needs at the front of the queue for funding allocations. With the number of long-range mission changes, they could not offer a credible plan for a shuttle replacement service, therefore they needed a backup plan that may, in the first instance, rely on Russia, but that arrangement should have been joined by domestic and other partnership options very quickly. Further, any credible plan for returning to space long-term would require engines, so domestic engine manufacturing should have been funded long before the shuttle program was retired. And they needed to imagine what Russia could do, not what it hope it would do.
As a visionary organization, NASA is charged with setting big, bold ideas into motion–with inspiring the nation and its children, and with conducting deep science that could discover facts about the universe that may very well impact day-to-day lives on earth. But NASA is also an operational branch of the US government with people and equipment that needs to remain operational. And it needs to offer ways to ferry American crews to-and-from space.
That later point is one often lost on organizations too focused on vision when they have operational issues to content with. Many tech start-ups, even large companies, create bold visions and talk about how they are going to change the world, but their lack of prowess in executing near-term plans dooms their ambitions. If you don’t survive into the future, you don’t get to play a role in it (genetics and Dawkins notwithstanding).
That’s why good, effective scenario planning is as important for start-ups as it is for NASA, and this current issue points to NASA’s failure to use its long view to inform near-term decisions. As stated above, a crisis with Russia, not necessarily the one we are facing now, should have been in at least one of NASAs scenarios, which should have driven the agency to create contingency plans. Unlike contingencies for stockpiling drinking water ahead of a hurricane, NASA has both a longer lens and a longer lead-time to delivery on its contingencies. And because of the other uncertainties ahead of it, like Congressional support and funding, public support, stability of international partners and technology evolution, NASA should have pulled the trigger on the contingency for a shuttle replacement long before the shuttle retired, and fought for it over and above all other missions because there are people and equipment in space that already require such a system.
Yes, NASA fighting for a shuttle replacement would have reduced the agency’s visionary credentials, but it would have been the right strategic move. Stranded astronauts does not make for good PR, and no image from Hubble could overcome the outrage of Russia refusing to bring American’s home during a spat over Eastern Ukraine.
Unfortunately, it is far too late for NASA to fix this problem. Anything they do now will be an even bigger jury-rig that the Russian partnership. Other organizations, commercial, governmental and non-governmental need to learn from NASA and put their long lenses to work and apply scenario thinking. The Middle East insurgency and the Ebola breakout are just two other current examples where good scenario planning, the close watching of unfolding uncertainties, investments in no-lose contingencies, and the reduction in arrogance and indifference that comes form exploring the future through scenarios, would have benefited the world immensely.