Thursday, July 21, 2011

Past Performance = Future Results

The Eagle has landed. Neil Armstrong

I remember where I was on July 20, 1969.  Sitting next to my father watching the first men walk on the moon. I was only 5, but it is the clearest, most vivid memory of my early childhood.  I was too young to understand, so that awe must have been a reflection of my father's, and his awe shared by the world.

Today, as the space shuttle program ends, I realized that I didn't bother to have my 4 year old son watch the end of an era with me.  How could something that inspired the world turn into...

"I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970's into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980's and '90's." Richard Nixon, 1972.

"It is now commonly accepted that was not the right path," Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, 2005.

In fairness to President Nixon, the decade prior to his announcement had marked extraordinary success.  Arguably, the Apollo program was the single largest success of any government program, ever.

After such success, imagine any President saying 'It was great that we walked on the moon, but we're done sending people into space".

So when a group of renown NASA engineers said it would be possible to create a shuttle that would be reusable, could turn around on a moments notice and fly again, that it would be low cost once built, who was Richard Nixon, or the Congress, or NASA administrators to argue?

Surely, given NASA's past performance, they would be able to deliver the space shuttle future results.

Those results were not delivered.  Rather then flying missions every two weeks, the average space shuttle flew about 1-2 missions per year.  Rather than being fully reusable, large portions of the shuttle were replaced each mission.  Rather than greatly increasing safety, the space shuttle was about as safe as the Apollo program.  Rather then being a great contributor to science and exploration, it was an albatross compared to the unmanned programs.

But past performance is a great predictor of future results, IF you aren't selective in what pieces of the past performance are looked at.

Past performance indicator #1 - huge success landing on moon.  OK, good sign!

Past performance indicator #2 - the annual budget - hmmm, OK, wait a minute

Note the HUGE spike of spending for the Apollo program in 1966, three years before the first moon launch.  Of course, developing the technology is a front end expense.  But where is the front end spending on the space shuttle?  It wasn't politically expedient to properly fund the development of the space shuttle and this led to thousands of design compromises.

Past performance indicator #3 - every other federal agency had learned the importance of putting a little bit of work in every congressional district to make terminating a project really hard.  Starve the agency of the funds it needs to do the job it was given and instead of optimizing the funds it has, it will create the map below:

Past performance indicator #4 - "...before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth..." JFK had given a pretty clear goal.  Contrast that to Richard Nixon's stated goal of "routinizing transportation into near space."

Read a Rocket to Nowhere for more insight into how underfunding the space shuttle, providing no clear mission and the constant fight for congressional support resulted in something less inspiring than a moonlight walk.

I'm sure my friends in large corporate research groups are nodding their heads at this point in consideration of the hundreds of underfunded, poorly targeted projects they've worked on over the years that all went the way of the space shuttle and could BE different.

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