The Course of Reason

NASA’s bureaucratic struggle

September 17, 2013

NASA is in trouble, and we’re told the culprit is directional drift. Directional drift is the lack of a clear consensus on NASA’s overall mission. Ever since NASA accomplished its last clear objective, beating the Soviets to the moon, it has adopted a splintered one-shot mission approach to procuring funding and establishing purpose. This strategy is a failed one, because specific, clearly defined objectives are death for government agencies. In order to survive, a government agency needs a broad, general objective that is just barely defined enough to have its success measurable.

Just look at the CIA, an agency exemplar when it comes to securing funding and establishing purpose. Like NASA, the CIA was an extension of an earlier organization. NASA grew out of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1958, while the CIA grew out of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which were both active during WWII. The original mission for the CIA was to gather and analyze foreign human intelligence (i.e., to spy). In the law that created the CIA, it is “afforded no police or law enforcement functions, either at home or abroad.” (National Security Act of 1947)

Obviously, both organizations were founded to help the U.S. defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Their missions were clear. NASA was supposed to beat the Soviets to the moon and establish American supremacy in space, while the CIA was to spy on the Soviets and their allies and prevent what are called strategic surprises.

Then the Cold War ended (mostly), and both agencies needed a new purpose. The CIA suffered through the 90’s until September 11, 2001, when it was able to maneuver itself into position as the primary terrorist hunting organization of the U.S. government. A single clause in the law, distinguishing it from the Department of Defense, allows the CIA to do “other functions and duties relating to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.” Presidential lawyers interpret this as meaning “license to kill.” Thus, it recovered from its directional drift by virtually abandoning its prior purpose: to spy. Now its almost exclusive purpose is to identify and eliminate targets. For more on this, see The Way of the Knife, by Mark Mazzetti.

NASA has failed to recover from the Cold War’s end. Really, it has failed to recover from achieving its specific objective of beating the Soviets to the moon. From a funding perspective, NASA would be better off if it had lost the moon race. We can see NASA struggling to recover by casting a wide net over useful objectives. Autonomous robots, satellite monitoring of climate change, exploration of Mars, asteroid lassoing, public understanding of science, and flight safety all number among its current missions. This is what the policy experts refer to as directional drift.

If you look at the CIA’s top five priorities, according to the 2013 FY budget, you’ll see this:

1. Find and kill terrorists.

Doing counterintelligence operations against China and Russia, traditional spy agency shit, is down at number 4.

Now, as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, it is much easier for an agency to secure funding if its strategic objective in some way pertains to national defense or to economic advancement. Capturing the public’s imagination is insufficient. Some think the effort to avoid annihilation by asteroid impact is the obvious path to funding for NASA, falling under the national defense category. But I disagree. I think if you want to gain funding by playing with asteroids, you’d be better off figuring out how to fling smallish ones at North Korea. The reason is that preventing asteroid collisions is clearly a global problem, but Americans don’t want to pay for a global problem, as illustrated by our refusal to do anything about climate change.

I won’t pretend to have any answers here. NASA badass Christ Kraft thinks we should be refocusing on the moon, specifically with the goal of installing enormous solar panels. I think this is a good idea to do, but I don’t think it will save NASA in the long run, because it is still a specific, clearly defined objective. Once accomplished, the task will be merely to maintain the solar panels, which won’t generate enough funding to do much else. We see this problem currently plaguing NASA regarding the ISS.

NASA's Mission Control


Scott Pace from George Washington University thinks a contender for strategic objective should be the permanent placement of humans in space and the utilization of space’s resources. He thinks this is an inherently international objective, and will require NASA to strengthen U.S.‘s international ties. This seems to fit the criteria I laid out above, in that it is broad, general, and just barely defined enough to be measurable. It fits nicely under the economic motivation category of the Tyson Triangle. It has the added benefit of being able to justify other good ideas, like Kraft’s. Now, instead of the moon panels serving as NASA’s reason for existence, the goal of utilizing space’s resources would justify the moon panel mission. For government agencies, justification should run downhill like that.

One concern I have with John Logsdon’s commentary, a colleague of Pace’s. Logdsdon claims that imbuing the agency with an overarching strategy “is the job of a national leader-is enunciating for NASA as well as other government agencies what it’s for, what its long-term and even midterm strategic purposes in terms of the national interest ought to be.” I think this approach to the problem is misguided, based on what I’ve read about the CIA’s dramatic reformation.

As far as I can tell, government agencies capture funding and purpose by having their directors and administrators actively lobby on their behalf, either to Congress or to the President. Rather than it being the President’s job to hand down an agency’s overarching strategy, it is the agency’s job to develop its own overarching strategy that in some way contributes to the overarching policies of the President. Just as a NASA chief project scientist develops a project consistent with NASA’s overarching goal and then pitches it to a higher up, the agency director must develop an overarching strategy consistent with the President’s overarching goals, and pitch it to him. I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.


About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.




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