A meaningful vision for NASA: mission impossible?

Last month I had the opportunity to talk with a committee of distinguished representatives of the aerospace community about NASA’s strategic planning process and the agency’s strategic direction. My take on the topics was this: both are muddy. Politics – from the national to the organizational to the individual – clouds the process and dictates the direction. Thus, there may be no way to get out of the mud.

The National Research Council’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (DEPS), at the request of NASA’s inspector general (prompted by a legislative directive), organized this “Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction” to consider goals set for the agency in the1958 NASA Act (as amended) and recent authorizing laws, “assess the relevance of NASA’s strategic direction and goals to achieving national priorities, “assess the viability of NASA’s strategic direction and goals in the context of current budget expectations and stated programmatic priorities for the agency, and “recommend how NASA could establish and effectively communicate a common, unifying vision for NASA’s strategic direction that encompasses NASA’s varied missions.” (The committee’s full statement of task and the agenda for its meeting this week are available online here.)

Every time I read these marching orders, I start hearing the theme song to “Mission Impossible”….

The committee invited me to address its June 25 meeting in Washington, asking me to focus especially on “how NASA could establish and effectively communicate a common, unifying vision….” Here’s what I said, in brief (my Powerpoint slides for this presentation are posted here).

To establish a common unifying vision and to effectively communicate that vision are two different tasks. NASA “vision” statements are necessarily bland and nebulous, “mom-and-apple-pie” statements, formulated by committees.* NASA “visions” must support national space policy — which changes every four to eight years as political leadership changes. Policies and “visions” are politically motivated and value-laden (that is, ideological). Visions beget strategic plans, and thus these plans are politically motivated and value-laden as well. To develop a common, unifying “vision” for NASA’s strategic direction is a task that NASA may not be able to perform.

Until and unless NASA can consult with citizens about space exploration goals and objectives that are important to them and incorporate public input into its strategic planning process, balance political and public interests, acknowledge and temper internal cultural biases and subcultural conflicts, and jettison its branding-and-marketing strategy in favor of a more effective long-term communication strategy, then it will be difficult for NASA to develop a common, unifying vision.

What NASA needs is a vision for the U.S. future in space that is meaningful to citizens, not just to aerospace insiders, and a meaningful vision (and strategic direction) must acknowledge that the U.S. can’t always be “the leader” in all things aeronautics and space. In fact, the NASA Act directs NASA to be “a leader” – what a difference a preposition makes….

In theory, it is possible for NASA to develop and deploy an effective communication strategy. In practice, it may not be possible to accomplish this goal given that NASA’s “vision” changes shape every 4-8 years and at the same time is tightly linked to the contested ideologies of American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and libertarianism.

* Committee co-chair Albert Carnesale pointed out to a NASA official addressing the June 25 meeting that the agency’s current “vision statement” does not mention either “aeronautics” or “space.” (Talk about nebulous….)


3 Responses to “A meaningful vision for NASA: mission impossible?”

  1. Ex-NASA boss defends GW Bush “vision” (again…) « doctorlinda Says:

    […] Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences assembled this committee at NASA’s request (see my July 18 blog post) “to assess whether [the agency’s] strategic direction…as defined by the 2011 NASA strategic […]

  2. NASA’s strategic direction? not one way… « doctorlinda Says:

    […] assembled by the NRC’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences at NASA’s request (see my July 18 blog post), has invited comments from all living ex-NASA administrators (plus current NASA Administrator […]

  3. Michael Barton Says:

    Linda, I’m one of the interns who worked with the committee and I wanted to let you know that the committee is taking public responses now through August 17 through an online survey in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible. (http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DEPS/PublicInputForm/index.htm). Feel free to tell your readers!

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