“I’m From the Government and I’m Here to Help”

By Richard Mains, Posted 01/05/10


NASA: A Collaborative Customer, Source: Google Images

NASA: A Collaborative Customer, Source: Google Images

This title is a well-worn phrase sometimes used by NASA and other government managers as self-deprecating humor to help loosen up an audience before they give their presentations. It usually draws some laughs, and more than a few groans. But what are its origins, what does it mean, and why should we, who support space commerce, even care?

The phrase was a favorite of President Reagan’s who liked to say that it contained "The nine most terrifying words in the English language.” The cynical but provocative underlying message was that government can’t really help solve problems - it only makes things worse. We all have our favorite examples of government-related failures (Katrina anyone?), but we often forget that in the main, government does work. Most would not agree that the solution to poor government performance is to eliminate it. But we usually agree on the need for better leadership, more public oversight, and direct citizen involvement in the process - and we should balance the budget too.

But how does this classic remnant of “Reaganism” relate to our advocacy goals for government’s support of the commercial space enterprise? Those nine scary words suggest an old style of government that we must pressure to be more open, effective and democratic. This is essential in part because government has a critical role to play in facilitating the emergence of entrepreneurial space commerce.

Only the government can work to ensure that the bureaucratic barriers to space access for U.S. entrepreneurs are low, and also ensure there are reasonable safety guidelines in place. Government can also commit to being a reliable customer for companies who are able to provide good value, but make it known that it expects to be just the first of several customers, as space commerce grows. Government needs multiple commercial providers and doesn’t want to be any industry’s only customer. That’s way too risky for all as has been learned many times over in the aerospace contracting industry.

Looking just at NASA, it has a congressional legislative mandate, and the President’s and NASA Administrator’s strong support to help increase the private sector’s ability to provide lower-cost infrastructure services for more frequent access to space. There is understandable resistance to this by some members of Congress whose regional and state funding might be negatively impacted by the increasing use of emerging commercial space companies. However, the U.S. can no longer afford the higher costs of solely accessing space via government-developed, and contractor-operated and maintained transportation systems. We must utilize and adapt to the new emerging lower-cost more effective options, or lose our ability to compete in the increasingly global space marketplace.  There is evidence that some traditional aerospace entities intend to be involved in providing new commercial space services too, which would bring more healthy competition (and some buyouts?).

We will not have cheaper and more reliable access to, and utilization of space unless there is a profit motive driving private investment. Thankfully, NASA is demonstrating the power of government investment in space transport via a public-private partnership with industry termed Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). NASA ensures that funds are available to industry competition winners for needed infrastructure development only as they meet pre-defined milestones, including the capture of specified private investment funds. The end goal is for the government to be a customer and purchase needed services at a much lower cost and thus save resources and increase reliability and safety driven by market competition. It’s a win-win and U.S. industries can once again become major competitors in the international space access market with many national benefits, including the development and sale of new space infrastructure technologies globally (new jobs).

NASA needs to think like, and learn to be, what I call a “collaborative customer”, a coined phrase that recognizes its dual role in commercial space. As a customer it can buy services from industry such as transport of cargo and eventually astronauts to space, but it also needs to collaborate with the private sector to support its market entry and participation in space infrastructure development, such as systems for automated docking with the ISS. The new NASA Commercial ReUsable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) Program will also allow NASA to be a collaborative customer in support of research in near-space. Changing most things, including government is always hard, but now we must muster it within NASA.   Or, as put more directly by a NASA colleague of mine, "If you don't like change in NASA, you'll like irrelevance even less". 


Are NASA Staff Motivated to Support Commercial Space?

From: Richard Mains, 01/15/10

Joan Vernikos, the former Director of Life Sciences at NASA HQs, and before that a NASA space life sciences researcher and inventor, has responded to this article with a tough question. She asks, "What is the incentive of the individual [NASA] employee to help commercial enterprise succeed, regardless of...[encouragement to do so] from above?" She also notes that NASA staff are evaluated on their individual performance, not "on how well they collaborate, communicate or cooperate with other agencies [or private sector entities]". In my view, only people who realize that NASA is heading at high-speed toward a dead-end will understand the need for the Agency to collaborate with emerging entrepreneurial commercial space businesses to help create a more efficient and effective space infrastructure. Such businesses must collaborate, innovate and compete within their industry to survive. NASA is chronically over-committed, under-funded, and dependent on just a few large aerospace contractors for infrastructure builds with little motivation to compete (large defense contracts which are often shared are their main business) and cannot succeed in the 21st Century without this change. Enlightened NASA staff will see such changes as ultimately being in their long-term self-interest because the Agency is not sustainable without it. NASA must learn to be a smart "collaborative customer" for appropriate emerging businesses. The change agents within NASA are not just the young with little to lose who know the power of open collaboration. Many of the old guard understand the need for change the best, since they've seen the end of the road approaching for a long time and know we've arrived. Current NASA, White House and Congressional leadership understand this need and hopefully also know that empowering NASA leaders willing to take personal risks for the ultimate benefit of all is the key to adopting a new way of doing business. It's time for bold action and working as open teams both inside and outside government. I still have faith that it will happen. What about you?

What Bureaucracy ?

From: Joan Vernikos, 01/14/10

Success comes from competition, passion, hunger,lean and mean teamwork. NASA had it but past its middle age it has grown corpulent with job security and initiative-sluggish. 'Help' from NASA implies somewhere down the line having to follow its model, be beholden and like the children of wealthy parents lose initiative and creativity. The Prize concept worked and works very well. Independence is paramount for entrepreneurial success. Intellectual and technical support on a take it or leave it basis is the only responsible way NASA could nurture fledgling space commerce. Buying its soul is a sure road to mediocrity. Reagan was not wrong. I remember the days at university where you managed your own grant funds. Then we acquired layers of bureaucracy to 'support' us at a cost of sometimes 80% of hard-earned grant funding, sometimes more. The Xmas bomber incident is another example. Thanks to President Carter's introduction of the ritual of performance plans, civil servants fattened by security of tenure are evaluated on the basis of their personal achievements, not on how well they collaborate, communicate or cooperate with other agencies. Whatever the instructions and regulations at the top, it is a simple human factor that although everyone had the information, that is where it remained. NASA is no different. What is the incentive of the individual employee to help commercial enterprise succeed, regardless of lip service or directives from above?

Fixer Upper, Short Sale Bargain, All Serious Offers Welcome!

From: Kathleen Connell, 01/13/10

Since NASA needs at least $ 3B to create grants for commercial space companies, why not call it a day, and sell the American element of the ISS? This provides a commercial real estate location ( plumbing included) that is ready to go. The taxpayer gets pennies on the hundreds of billions spent on ISS, but it's better than nothing. Take the discounted proceeds from the sale and expand the COTS budget, to actually cement the NewSpace sector in place, and voila, we have new commercial launch capability and a commercial building to work in. Mr. Bigelow would be given first right of refusal on the ISS property. Now that's collaboration!-:)

Arnie Abrahamson is our First Guest Editor!

From: Richard Mains, 01/07/10

Abrahamson obviously has a copy editor's eye, so I have accepted his preferred edit of the garbled last sentence above. He has also been designated our first "Guest Editor" for catching our omission. We encourage him to submit his own article to us on a topic of relevance to space commerce, and potentially also become a "Guest Author-Analyst". This is, after all, meant to be a space commerce community site.

"Now we must it?"

From: Arnie Abrahamson, 01/07/10

What does that mean, "now we must it within NASA?" I assume there's a word missing. But is the word (or phrase): "now we must demand it..." "now we must beg for it..." "now we must wait for it..." "now we should expect it..." or my favorite choice, "now we must muster it..."

Nice Summary

From: Thomas Lee Elifritz, 01/06/10

I particularly like 'collaborative customer'. Now if they will only cooperate.

Add Your Comment

(not published)