Announcing a new approach to space exploration yesterday, President Obama shifted the focus from getting somewhere to building capability.
“Step by step, we will push the boundaries not only of where we can go but what we can do... In short, 50 years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time.”
-President Obama in the New York Times
The Apollo project of the 1960s mobilized a massive amount of money, people, and effort to put a man on the moon. In the eight years between President Kennedy's announcement that the US would shoot for the moon and Neil Armstrong's first steps on lunar soil, NASA answered questions no one had ever asked before.
To be simplistic, there's no such thing as a single challenge. Challenges come in bundles. The difficulty is that it's very hard to predict in advance the nature of the bundle and to define the boundaries of the challenge. One may aspire to go to the moon but would they expect, from the outset, to research food enrichment as a step to getting there?
The sheer size of the Apollo project's ambition required the people involved to invent solutions to seemingly unrelated problems. The results of this are important to our everyday lives in ways that most people (including me) don't acknowledge, probably don't even know about. From enriched baby food to computer controlled fabrication (CNC), the secondary benefits of the space program are many, even if their pace has slowed.
NASA's leadership of the space effort was a success in the 20th century when the target was difficult yet clear defined. One could argue that the success of the moon mission was derived from an institutional ability to pursue the right answer.
Nowadays we increasingly encounter problems that are ill-defined (or fuzzy or wicked, take your pick) and the question, as such, might not even exist yet. Today success still relies on choosing the right answer, as it always will, but we also have to ask the right questions.
This requires a shift of focus from building institutional capability towards building a culture of capability. Setting a new target, like Mars, may be dramatic, but it's not responsive to the ways that our context has changed in the past 40 years. We know the headlines (climate change, health care, etc) but the actual boundaries of these challenges need to be continually developed. To do this we need a culture that understands problems and solutions as moving targets, constantly in development together. HDL sees strategic design as one of the steps towards building this culture.
Neil Armstrong tacitly acknowledged the diminishing returns of a business-as-usual space program by noting that, "[going to Mars] will be expensive [and] it will take a lot of energy and a complex spacecraft. But I suspect that even though the various questions are difficult and many, they are not as difficult and many as those we faced when we started the Apollo (space program) in 1961." In other words, we know the boundaries of that problem pretty well and the development of new knowledge will be now incremental rather than stepwise.
The sheer complexity of working in space makes it a crucible of innovation, but unless we're asking the right questions and setting the right targets–unless we continue to define the boundaries of the challenge–the returns will continue to diminish.
For Mr. Kennedy it was enough to go to the moon because "it is there" and those were heady days. To deliver on Mr. Obama's intentions of an expanded capability to work and live in space we'll have to first figure out what it is we want to do. That sounds like a mighty design brief to me.