Update: a pdf of the newspaper page with the artwork.
Give NASA the chance to be next Google
Space agency's as good a place as any to bring bureaucracy into the 21st century
By TORY GATTIS and CHRIS BRONK
Houston Chronicle July 4, 2009, 7:40PM
As it celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, NASA may be facing its greatest challenge in history. Envisaged is a return to the moon, the establishment of a base there and a push on to Mars, all within far more severe budget and safety constraints than the Apollo program. Failure could mean the end of the organization. As former astronaut Bob Crippen pointed out recently (“The next step in space exploration,” Outlook, June 28, Page B8), the growing time gap between retirement of the space shuttle and new manned launch vehicles threatens the economic and technical base of the U.S. aerospace industry. Meanwhile, China’s space program, flush with funds, continues to rise as a competitor. Imagine what it will achieve with the same focus and funding that was lavished on the 2008 Olympics.
A radical breakthrough is needed. There are well-documented problems with the existing bureaucracy, and heavy reliance on private contractor outsourcing has not been a panacea. To succeed, NASA will need an organization that can enable something like a “Moore’s Law of Space Travel” — yielding continuous reductions in the costs and risks of space travel similar to the rapid improvements we’ve seen in computer technology.
At the same time, the Obama administration wants to pioneer “Government 2.0” based on modern “Web 2.0” collaboration technologies to improve both efficiency and effectiveness. It wants government to be more agile, innovative and entrepreneurial, and has hired federal information and technology officers to make this happen. What the administration needs is an agency to create a prototype of these new approaches — a “Google of government” able to transplant the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial ecosystem inside its organization to yield a continuous stream of innovations. Who better than NASA to pioneer this approach?
NASA is in an absolutely unique position to prototype a 21st-century organization. Given current political and budget constraints, many may consider the mission near impossible, but NASA has a mandate for change. It is expected to be creative, innovative and future-oriented. The public expects most of government and the private sector to be safe and conservative, but people understand that NASA must take risks to achieve great things with limited resources.
The rise of the open-source software movement is another example of the new, innovative organization. These very loose, voluntary associations have created massively complex applications like the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server — both now dominant applications on the Internet. The open-source movement has a principle known as Linus’ Law: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” With the extreme consequences of potential “bugs” in the Moon-Mars mission model, the open-source approach may have useful applications at NASA. It could also be an effective way to work with international, academic and private-sector partners, as well as to build public engagement.
To kick off NASA’s transformation, we are calling for the creation of a permanent blue-ribbon advisory commission drawing on leading private and academic experts, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Coordination Science, the Management Innovation Lab (MLab), McKinsey & Co., and even Google itself. By integrating these cutting-edge organizational tools and concepts into a single prototype organization, NASA can create a successful model that can be emulated elsewhere in government and industry. This next-generation organization may be more valuable to society than all the accumulated spin-off technologies from a Moon-Mars mission, perhaps even besting the greatest government spin-off to date: the Internet.
Gattis, a Houstonian, blogs on Organization 2.0 as a social systems architect with OpenTeams Software. Bronk is the fellow for technology, society and public policy at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.