Being Competitive: Lessons from NASA, Part 1

I attended a high-profile dinner of the Council for Competitiveness (http://www.compete.org/) last week. The website describes the Council as follows:  “A nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization in Washington, D.C., the Council shapes the debate on competitiveness by bringing together business, labor, academic and government leaders to evaluate economic challenges and opportunities.”  The audience at the dinner was amazing; there were two members of the presidential cabinet, directors of key agencies such as NSF and DARPA, leaders from NASA, DOD, and university presidents. I recognized more people from TV than I knew from previous meetings.

I believe that the Council is grappling with one of the most important and most difficult challenges the US is facing: how can we make the country more competitive?

Success in this challenge relates to leadership, prosperity, and the resolution of some of the most important challenges we are facing, inicluding our energy crisis, our financial crisis, our homeland security challenges, our healthcare crisis, and many more. The solution clearly involves all parties that are mentioned above– leaders in business, labor, academic and government. Obviously competiveness in past decades has generated the very high standard of living we enjoy today and competitiveness today relates to how all of us will live in twenty or thirty years.

To discuss the challenge faced here, I want to address a technology that I have worked in for many years: space technology. This technology is associated with one of the most important agencies that literally stood for technology leadership and competitiveness – NASA. Yesterday, I was in the gym watching TV when I saw the Space Shuttle Endeavour lift into the sky. I cannot help but be excited whenever I see a rocket take off. It is another victory in human ingenuity against the seemingly undeniable laws of nature and you can see the rocket leave into the night sky!

But, when I started thinking about this spectacle, my excitement rapidly turned into concern. Endeavor’s construction was approved twenty years ago to replace Challenger which was lost in the most heart-wrenching catastrophes in NASA’s history. Challenger, together with the other parts of the NASA fleet, was supposed to revolutionize getting into space – we don’t need a space-rocket, we just take a shuttle… Yesterday, high-resolution cameras were filming foam pieces falling from the tanks and making sure that they don’t hit the highly sensitive ceramic tiles that protect the space vehicle at re-entry. The annoying part is, of course, that we have thermal protection technologies that by far exceed the performance of those tiles. But, we are flying eighties technology. We are stuck in time!

The space shuttle is only one symptom of a much broader trend that has eroded the hailed US leadership in space technology. This is highly visible in every single area of activity. Check out lunar exploration, for example. Who has been going to the moon lately? The Indians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Europeans and well, yes – the US. There is nothing wrong with international presence in space – it’s symptomatic of every technology space; it’s a flat Earth – and even a flat space. My only point here is that the rules of the flat Earth also apply in space. Leadership is not inherited from the past, it comes from innovation and competitiveness today.

The US government has sometimes taken a very different, defensive approach. The most obvious day-to-day impacts come from the International Traffic and Arms Regulations (ITAR). There is one simple conclusion from these regulations. Foreigners are no longer welcome to work in US space industry. That’s crazy. Leadership takes the very best people. With these rules, the US would have never been successful during the Manhattan project, and also during the early stages of NASA. Without doubt, ITAR rules were put in place to solve a security problem, but they have caused an even bigger problem. A study commissioned by the Department of Defense has concluded that ITAR made the US less safe and not safer, as initially intended. In addition, these rules are undercutting companies around the US and preventing them from exporting their products. The results are simple and expected: These companies now have foreign competitors who could grow. They never would have made it without ITAR.

The ITAR regulations are a great way to identify one of the most important malaises NASA has had – a total misunderstanding of technology progress and competitiveness. Being competitive relates to offense not to defense. This is one of the most important lessons we can learn from NASA. For all practical purposes, NASA has done well. Missions are successful, we have not had accidents in a while, and things are marching along. But, NASA’s leadership is changing like an ice sculpture of a hero in the sunshine. First, we hardly noticed a difference, then it started dripping, soon, the arm fell off, and the sculpture is becoming smaller and continues losing its shape. Soon, all we do is admire the pedestal, as we visit the shrines of exploration, the Air and Space museum, the rockets in Huntsville, Alabama, and shiny exhibits in museums all around the country.

I want to continue these thoughts next week. But, let me summarize the core lessons of this semi-historic look at NASA. You cannot become a leader in a field by defensive maneuvers, such as patenting, being secretive, or playing it safe. You cannot even stay a leader by protecting a previous leadership position, such as a diploma or even a PhD. Competitiveness and thus leadership come from a day-to-day struggle that is focused forward, keeping the eye on the goal, and out-innovating peers. And remember: No risk, no fun!

My next blog-post will stay on this theme and address the role of universities and also careers in space technology.

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