NASA’s strategic direction? not one way…

Last week I reported ex-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s current views on NASA’s strategic direction. Today, as promised, I’ll tell you about what ex-NASA Administrator Bob Frosch has to say on the subject.

The National Research Council’s Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction, 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 Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver)* on “whether [the agency’s] strategic direction…as defined by the 2011 NASA strategic plan, remains viable and whether the agency’s activities and organization efficiently and effectively support that direction in light of the potential for constrained budgets for the foreseeable future.”

Griffin, President George W. Bush’s second appointed head of NASA (2005-2009), and Bob Frosch, President Jimmy Carter’s appointee to the position (1977-1981), had an hour apiece with the committee at its July 26 meeting in Washington, D.C. I was there to observe. Frosch was there to listen to Griffin. Griffin left the meeting before Frosch spoke. Their views could not have been more divergent.

Introducing himself to the committee as “your friendly neighborhood cynic, left over from the Neolithic,” Frosch said that upon reading the committee’s statement of task, he’d concluded that it had been “delivered a load of whiffledust and sent on a snipe hunt.” When he ran NASA, he said, his planning guidance was the 1958 NASA Act, and “there was no single direction” in it. The challenge of developing a good NASA strategic plan is a matter of figuring out how to achieve a balance among the functions assigned to NASA in the Act.

NASA’s long had a case of “nostalgie de la Sputnik” – in its post-Cold War years the agency has been waiting for somebody to “threaten” the United States so it can respond by doing something big that will show “the people” how valuable the space agency is. It is difficult to see how NASA can contribute to advancing “national priorities,” as these priorities are never clear and have “a habit of leading political lives of two, four, or six years, while the lifetimes of NASA priorities start at 10 years or more, he observed.

How can NASA “lead” in space exploration? “You lead by leading,” Frosch said, by sustaining international cooperation, by serving as “the chair and not the dictator.” Frosch said he’s long favored President Eisenhower’s approach to strategic planning: “plans are nothing, planning is everything…. The virtue of planning is that you’ve thought about a lot of possibilities, so you’re continually prepared” to produce a brand-new plan that is responsive to the current environment.

Last week’s meeting marked the NRC committee’s last planned public session. The committee is aiming to complete its report by November and will continue its work in closed session from now until then.

*All save Dan Goldin (1992-2001) have addressed the committee. Though thus far he has made good on his promise upon leaving NASA to forego commenting on his predecessors or successors at the agency, Goldin reportedly has not turned down or accepted the committee’s invitation.

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