Saul Kaplan: To the Moon, Alice!

One of my biggest pet peeves is setting strategy one tactic at a time.  It drives me crazy to be surrounded by people and organizations that think if they just work hard enough and do more things that a strategic direction and destination will emerge.  It seems that most of the world works this way.  It is terribly inefficient.  How many people and organizations do you know that pedal the bicycle like crazy but never seem to arrive anywhere.  They just keep pedaling harder hoping that something will eventually stick.  It is exhausting watching them.  Why not determine a destination and work hard on those things that help you get there. It seems so simple. Setting a strategic direction provides a way to know which tactics are aligned and contribute to reaching the destination.  The destination may change along the way requiring different tactics, and that is OK, but not having a destination at all is a ticket to nowhere.

When John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon” in 1961, Americans rallied around the destination.  We believed it was possible and the goal of setting foot on the moon rallied a country to advance its global science and technology leadership.  It was cool to study math and science and clear that innovation was the economic engine that would drive American prosperity.  When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon eight years later and said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”, we celebrated his achievement as if it was our own and knew at that moment that anything was possible.  We have been trying to get that feeling back ever since. Today, we have no clear destination, in space or on earth.

photo-saulI am still trying to process President Obama’s plan to cancel NASA’s Constellation program for manned space flight back to the moon.  OK, I thought, maybe he has a bolder more imaginative space destination in mind or a better way to get back to the moon. It turns out that the announced strategy identifies no new destination at all and has been called a “flexible path” focusing on enabling technologies. The destination will be determined later. Please say it isn’t so. It is impossible to be inspired with out a destination and it is terribly inefficient to develop enabling technologies with out an end in mind.

My second thought upon hearing the new NASA strategy was that maybe President Obama wants to turn our attention and resources toward earth and create an inspiring space mission like focus on fixing health care, education, or climate change. We have no clear destination for any of these huge system challenges.  We continue to play around the margins hoping that incremental changes will launch us toward systemic solutions.  It isn’t working.  We need to transform each of these systems and it will take “moon landing” like clarity and commitment to make it happen.  So maybe the president plans to shift attention and resources away from space exploration toward transformation here on earth.  No such luck.

It isn’t as if the NASA budget was cut freeing up resources for other priorities.  The proposed budget actually increases NASA’s budget by 2% allocating $6B over 5 years to create a commercial taxi to the space station.  The budget comes nowhere close to the $3B a year that the recent expert advisory panel suggested was needed to create a robust manned space program.  So we appear to be lost in space and on earth. We will continue to invest in space technologies without a clear destination and we will continue to work around the margins of the important system challenges we face here on earth.

It is enough to make you scream.  All I can think of is Ralph Kramden in the Honeymooners getting angry and red in the face, proclaiming, “To the moon, Alice”!


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