By Michael Mealling
I spend about an hour each morning checking everyone's blogs and other space related punditry. Every few weeks the combination of several unrelated articles twigs something in my own mind. This week it was a combination of Jon Goff's Stopped Clock Alert and A Modest Proposal, Rand Simberg's The Innovator's Dilemma, and Rick Tumlinson's Do We Go to Play? Or Do We Go to Stay?.
If you read anything in the Innovator's Dilemma series one of the points Clayton makes (and backs up with considerable evidence) is that it is extremely rare for an organization to change itself to take advantage of disruptive technology/business models. Either the enterprise fails completely and goes out of business or, in the case of very large organizations such as IBM, the company can survive but that particular line of business fails. Those organizations that do take advantage of it usually do so by creating physically seperate organizations that intentionally cannibalize the original enterprise.
The point of all that background is this: while I agree with Rick and Jon that NASA and Congress could do a lot better, the odds of being able to convince the existing organizations to change is so slim that its hard to justify spending your time attempting to change it. The political reality is that the various Shuttle derived systems exist because no other plan pays the political bribe that gives NASA the budgets it needs to do other things. Any suggestion that causes the standing army to stand down is dead on arrival. It sucks but its just the nature of our system of politics. Its the nature of any large organization.
Does that mean you give up and start cheerleading for the Architecture as the only show in town? No. Did Jobs and Wozniak become cheerleaders for mainframe computing? No. They simply ignored the current way of doing things. While their products did eventually disrupt the computing industry rather radically, they didn't set out with that goal. They did it by finding new markets and routing around adoption barriers.
I'm not suggesting we completely ignore NASA and the Federal Government either. Just don't focus on trying to change the fundamental laws of political physics. Use the bits that are useful and route around the rest. If your business plan can take advantage of NASA's need to supply ISS cost effectively then do so. If it can take advantage of a Centennial Challenge, then do that. But we should all also be looking beyond NASA. Orbital Recovery has had great success working with European companies. The stem cell research community accomplished a great deal by routing around the Federal Government and going directly to the state legislatures. There is enough going on in other places that you could effectively build an alternate space program out of those scattered pieces. Yes, NASA will be building various bits of the CEV and other shuttle derived hardware at the same time but so what? In the end did it really matter that there were business units at IBM that were still attempting to sell mainframes during the microcomputer revolution?
Yes, it sucks that politics is illogical and that it dictates that NASA will end up deploying a flawed system. But our system of government is simply incapable of the kind of radical change that doing the right thing would require. Congress will never vote to disturb the standing army. It will disappear only when everyone has retired or been hired off by other concerns. When you're presented with a brick wall like that don't beat your head against it attempting to knock it down. Figure out a way to climb over it or go around it.
UPDATE: I should be clear here that I'm talking mostly about the Architecture, not all of NASA or the Federal Government. Over the past few months of market analysis I've been doing for my day job I have been learning how large NASA is. There are some bits of it that are useful such as Centennial Challenges, Sounding Rockets Program Office, and even COTS. And outside NASA there is AFRL, and Dod's Space Test Program.
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