It’s a far cry from the agency’s formative days in the 1960s when they put Americans on the moon. Replacing another federal initiative – the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics – NASA emerged in an era dominated by the Cold War and on the heels of the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. According to Thomas Hughes’ book American Genesis, military priorities and funding motivate independent inventors and the formation of new government agencies alike. The fears of the era – whether of losing military dominance, giving up strategic advantage in space, or simply rampant nationalism – led tremendous funding for the Apollo Project. Even as the agency transitioned towards a wider set of mission objectives, however, NASA remained “a huge government-industrial system infiltrated by the military,” meaning a continued influence over their projects and priorities, as well as a potentially powerful defender against inefficiency and cost overruns, so long as military needs were being addressed.
In his book The Moon and the Ghetto, Richard Nelson sees NASA as significantly different when compared to other federal scientific projects. Instead of focusing on basic research, NASA was granted ambitious, large-scale, and applied problems because of “both the intrinsic interest of the adventure and because of the belief that diffuse and widespread benefits would be an important by-product.” This has led to a mission creep of sorts, where contemporary NASA maintains projects ranging from climate monitoring to rocket fuel development, and from low earth orbit manned exploration to inter-stellar robotic probes towards the fringes of space. This huge terrain of responsibility leads to two related arguments criticizing NASA’s effectiveness as an innovator, which can be seen in a provocative piece by G. Pascal Zachary.
First, NASA’s wide-ranging missions arguably lead to a desire to maintain overlapping centers of excellence in fields that could be more effectively separated into more focused independent research initiatives. NASA maintains active projects in basic research, technological innovation, equipment production, and mission operations. This can be problematic because of fears of bureaucratic inefficiency when dealing with large and unfocused organizations, but also because of the risk of committing to inferior and inefficient in-house approaches.
Second, a broader argument attacks this degree of direct government involvement in innovation at all. As Zachary argues, NASA prioritizes its own tradition and survival, succumbs political manipulation by members of Congress and their personal priorities, and spends radically more than private firms on comparable projects. The federal space program would be better served, insists Zachary, by using NASA to dole out funds to private firms.
Indeed, Zachary isn’t alone in these critiques. Hughes, for instance, highlights the fact that independent would-be inventors have a tendency to pursue innovations in areas where ideas are “new, unrefined, and not yet presided over by a large corporation with massive resources.” Moreover, Nelson speaks to cases where government funding has misaligned priorities, leading to the pursuit of dead-end options well beyond their ideal life because of funding commitments.
Yet, while these arguments highlight important challenges facing NASA and other federal innovation systems, they rest on an erroneously narrow a vision of innovation. Most obviously, they ignore the fact that their present-day examples of commercial successes were made possible through ambitious and novel NASA programs. Today’s space industry (from SpaceX to Red Bull’s recent high-altitude jump) is built on the back of the hard-earned knowledge, real-world trials, and initial demand established by NASA and other national space programs. Fundamentally, NASA’s mission is just that: to pursue projects that wouldn’t be viable for profit-oriented companies; missions that push technology forward, tackle risky endeavors, and develop new markets.
Although the vision of splitting NASA into smaller firms to allow for more efficient and targeted innovation provides some insight into fixing NASA’s present weaknesses, it runs counter to the increasing importance of interdisciplinary problem solving. Shared institutions, physical spaces, and community identities leads to a far richer cross-pollination of ideas than is possible in a firm focused on exploiting a narrow idea for maximum profit. While these kinds of broad innovative hubs are inevitably subject to inefficiencies through occasional duplicated work and frequent failures, their successes ought to be measured more broadly as well, including laying the groundwork for the ideas and projects of the distant future.
Finally, these critiques cast a markedly narrow vision of what qualifies as an “innovation success.” Meaningful innovation isn’t simply finding the quickest, cheapest, and most efficient route to develop the newest iShuttle. Rather, it’s the process of engaging with complex problems in ways that generate new ideas and approaches, understand the challenges and unknowns more richly than before, and build connections between today’s ideas and tomorrow’s needs. Innovation inspires people to believe that problems can be solved, new ideas can be created, the world can be made better, and that adventure can be had. NASA has a powerful role to play in inspiring creative problem solving and motivating new generations of scientists, researchers, and engineers.
Looking at NASA from this perspective reveals an innovation pillar with strengths and weaknesses alike. It acknowledges an organization that could improve substantially in terms of coordination, open and effective communication, and a willingness to step back from being a monopoly more quickly to allow commercial partners to improve on their initial ideas. At the same time, however, it reveals our tendency to prioritize short-term outcomes over long-term ambitious, uncertain, and inspiring projects – a mistake which can only be overcome by embracing failure as part of an effective and meaningful innovation process. By committing to supporting NASA so long as it pursues ambitious projects in the eyes of scientists and the public alike, NASA can avoid past mistakes by becoming more collaborative with commercial firms and less afraid of needing to defend its monopoly on proven challenges.
This piece originally appeared as a post on "As We Now Think," the blog of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, where I'm a PhD student.