The statement adopted by the Strategic Planning Council describes NASA’s mission, its vision, and the scope of its activities. But the next step in the process cannot be taken in the absence of a comprehensive strategy for the civilian space program. Without a coherent formulation of the United States' intentions and priorities, there is no context in which to evaluate the relevance or the importance of any proposed initiatives.
To lay the foundation for the definition and articulation of such a strategy, NASA is currently developing a process to systematically assess the posture of our space program and to refine and assess candidate strategies to direct its future. This process, strategic option development, is still in its early stages; nevertheless, the development of the process has yielded some interesting insights into existing and potential space strategies.
The application of strategic option development to charting the future of the U.S. space program initially evolved from analogies drawn from relevant aspects of business theory. Although it is unconventional to think of space endeavors in terms of a business, many concepts from the business world are applicable and quite useful.
Leadership in business is possible at any time during a product's life cycle. When a new product is introduced (the innovator stage) there is no competition. If the product is successful, the firm becomes the market leader by default. The drawback, of course, is that innovators must accept the high cost and high risk associated with being first. The space program in the early 1960s was an innovator’s market. Nearly every successful effort produced a "first," but the risks, as well as the number of failures, were very high.
The launch of America’s first astronaut in space, Alan B. Shephard Jr., on the Mercury Redstone II from Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961.
In a mature business market (the late majority stage) there exists a balance, as many firms compete for some share of the market. At this stage, it is still possible to be a market leader by carving out a particular niche of that market or by delivering the highest quality or best value. The launch vehicle market, for example, is approaching a more mature stage, and many countries will be vying for leadership in the 1990s.
A firm engaged in more than one market must develop an integrated strategy which provides the flexibility to be both an innovator in a new market and the leading competitor in a mature market; this principle should be applied to a space program as well.
The business of space has expanded considerably since the 1960s. The areas of scientific research, space technology, space exploration, and space services are still open to leadership through innovation, but some are also now open to leadership in more mature markets. In fact, national space programs must now look at four stages of space leadership: (1) the pioneer stage, innovation in some particular area of research, technology, or exploration; (2) the complex second stag6, a continuation of a pioneering effort, but with broader, more complex objectives; (3) the operational stage, with relatively mature and routine capabilities; and (4) the commercially viable stage, with the potential for profit-making.
The activities of a space program can be characterized by physical regions of space: (1) deep space, (2) the outer solar system (the planets beyond the asteroid belt), (3) the inner solar system (the inner planets, the Moon, and the Sun), (4) high-Earth orbit, and (5) low-Earth orbit. Supporting technologies, such as launch capabilities and orbital facilities, are required to undertake all programs.
The complex concept of space leadership may be broken down into logical elements to form a two-dimensional matrix. The columns of the matrix are delineated by the four leadership stages outlined previously; the rows are the five physical regions of possible space activities, with a sixth row for supporting technologies and transportation. Each square of the matrix defines a particular area of possible leadership.
This matrix analysis provides a way to conceptualize alternative courses of action and can be used to describe and assess the space programs of spacefaring nations. It is possible to be a leader in a single square through any of a number of different programs. Figure 2 illustrates several programs which, if undertaken in the 1990s, would result in leadership in one area of space endeavor. For example, a country could be a leader in the highlighted area of a complex second effort in the inner solar system by successfully establishing a lunar outpost or by sending sophisticated rovers to other worlds.
Not all the squares will be accessible in the next decades. Technology has not progressed to the point that any nation is able to contemplate, for example, commercial prospects in the outer solar system. This figure does not represent a particular strategy; rather, it represents a collection of potential programs.
Being a leader in one area no longer results in overall space leadership. In the early 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were the only competitors, and only the cells in the lower left comer of the matrix were accessible. As technology advanced and nations gained experience in space, the opportunities began to expand. In the 1960s, the U. S. learned to send satellites to geosynchronous orbit, scientific experiments to low-Earth orbit, spacecraft to Mars, and even astronauts to the Moon. America was undeniably the leader in space exploration, but the range of space activities was (by today’s standards) relatively limited. In the 1980s, not only has the number of spacefaring nations increased, but so has the range of activities that an interested nation might undertake.
The business of space has expanded and branched, and now encompasses such diverse and mature fields as remote sensing, microgravity materials research, commercial communications, and interplanetary exploration. It appears virtually impossible for a single nation to dominate in all space endeavors. Since the U.S. can no longer reasonably expect to lead the way in all activities, it is now important to adopt a strategy to strive for leadership in carefully chosen areas.
If nations engage in similar activities (occupy the same space on the matrix) the conditions exist for either rivalry or cooperation; if a nation engages in distinct activities (occupies a space alone), the conditions exist for uncontested leadership.
This matrix was used to broadly characterize the space programs of the United States and other spacefaring nations during two periods of the space age: (1) 1957 through 1977, illustrated by Figure 3; and (2) 1978 through 1990, illustrated by Figure 4.
The major programs, U.S. and non-U. S., were identified and placed in the appropriate squares. This is by no means a comprehensive compilation, but the selected activities are representative of space efforts during these periods. An admittedly subjective assessment was made of whether the public perceived the U.S. or non-U.S. efforts to be the leaders in a given square. Each square was then shaded either blue or red: blue if the U. S. was judged the leader, red if not.
A comparison of the two matrices graphically displays the difference between these two periods of time. In the early years of the space age, fewer areas were accessible and the U.S. was the clear leader in most; the matrix representing the 1980s illustrates the decline of U.S. leadership.
Figure 2. Possible Programs to Capture Leadership after 1995
Examining the programs of the spacefaring nations shows the basic character of each. The U.S. space program has historically been composed of pioneering efforts—significant firsts and complex second efforts, which emphasized advanced research, technology, and exploration. The general trend can be characterized as revolutionary, producing spectacular events, rather than moderate, evolutionary advances. Even the United States Space Shuttle, though designed to be operational, was a revolutionary concept—it did not evolve from existing launch vehicles.
The Soviet space program, which is radically different from the American program, can be characterized as systematic and evolutionary. The primary focus is not on advanced research and technology, but on incrementally developed operational capabilities, achieved through a strong commitment to a robust infrastructure. The Soviets have steadily evolved toward this operational state and they are now beginning to build on that operational base to move slowly into the commercial arena.
The Europeans and the Japanese appear to be pursuing strategies that combine desires to pursue science in selected areas and to achieve commercial viability in others. The launch system Ariane, the remote-sensing satellite SPOT, and the Japanese JEM (which will be devoted to materials science research) are all examples of elements in these strategies.
These observations suggest that there is no one “correct” strategy; rather, there are many distinct strategic options. Clearly, each nation should choose and pursue a strategy which is consistent with its own national objectives.
What should our choice be? Do we want to mature our operational Earth-orbiting capabilities to a viable commercial enterprise? Should we continue our leadership role in solar system and deep-space exploration? Or should we focus on venturing ever further outward from Earth with human expeditions to the planets?
Figure 3. Leadership Matrix: Representative Achievements, 1957 to 1977
Figure 4. Leadership Matrix: Representative Achievements, 1978 to 1990