Sunday, July 05, 2009

Transform NASA into the "Google of Government"

Welcome everyone checking out the blog after reading this morning's op-ed in the Houston Chronicle. Since Chronicle links aren't permanent, I'll repost it in its entirety below. The main place for this post is on my work blog, but because NASA is so important to Houston, I thought I'd go ahead and cross-post it over here too. If this sort of transformation did happen at NASA, we might see the Clear Lake area evolve into a true Silicon Valley-like environment for aerospace technology. Comments are welcome below, or, if you'd like to support this initiative, please email me at tgattis (at)

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

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.

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At 10:09 PM, July 05, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This essay is somewhat short on details and specifics. In my mind I can't translate NASA-type activities to Google or open source.

Both Google and open source provide non-physical products with no human lives and no national prestige at stake.

However, open source (an international community of software developers who give away their work) and Google (a private firm with a near-monopoly on search) seem to be totally different operationally and structurally. Sure, elements of each could be part of a new model for NASA. More details, please.

Also, privatization of space activities seems to be delivering results below expectations. The capital requirement, risk, and market uncertainty seem to be too much to overcome. The Scaled composites space place (X-prize winner) seems to have run into problems. There are private launch firms, but the big defense contractors still seem to dominate the business.

I agree NASA has turned into more of a political entity and jobs program. More space station activity and going back to the moon would seem to have little scientific value. Mars is too costly and risky (and also better done by robots). I'm not sure what the future should be, but I'm thinking that future fiscal crisis (social security, universal healthcare, massive debt) may ultimately point to a near-earth unmanned space program.

At 7:59 AM, July 06, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

On a note unrelated to organization, but mission, a concept I've always wanted to explore more with experts would be a semi-permanent "solar system explorer" - a modular ship (maybe starting with the space station) that could go out to a body (Moon, Mars, eventually beyond to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn), send some small excursion ship to the surface, do some things, and return. On each return to Earth, some modules would be upgraded or switched out, or new modules added. NASA would be kept within a limited annual budget, and would accomplish what it can each year with that budget.

At 4:41 PM, October 22, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Open Source and Google references are about their way of organizing for adaptation, engagement, and innovation - not specific products.

Some broad, high-level details can be found by skimming my other blog or this short pdf chart pack


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