I had an experience with a client the other day that brought back memories of my kids when they were very young. I was reminded of the sad, forlorn look they would get on their face when they counted up the money they had in their pocket and realized it wasn’t enough to buy what they wanted. It’s quite heartbreaking, because as a parent you know it is not always appropriate to make up the difference, it is our job to teach our children that they can’t always get what they want and to help them make choices and weigh the consequences of those choices.

I am not drawing the analogy between children and said client to imply they are simple, on the contrary they are quite sophisticated. It is just for them, the nuances of pricing a fitout can seem as challenging as counting change is to a kid. The only similarity between the two really, is in the disappointment. What brought our client to a feeling of despair was their IT budget. They came to the sad realization that a sizeable portion of the budge would be allocated to equipment and wires in the walls and above the ceiling, leaving a paultry smidgen left to purchase all of the groovy things they had been dreaming about. The sad part is, these guys are tech savvy, but still they were confused.

You could argue that technology companies should have a better grasp of what these things cost, but in reality technology is such a moving target that it can even stump the gurus. Take NASA, if anyone is at the forefront of technology it’s the rocket men, but even they are in a world of hurt around their budget. They are in so much trouble that they have been called into the ‘big mans’ office, to explain how they are going to accomplish the task they were given by the Bush administration of returning to the moon by 2020.

It’s a tricky situation, the space shuttle is being decommissioned in September 2010 and the new Ares l rocket that will replace it is not only over budget, but not scheduled for completion till 2015. That leaves NASA five years of catching rides on Russian Soyuz space ships, at a cost of $50 million a seat, to transport vital supplies of toilet paper and vodka to the astronauts on the International Space Station. By 2016 the plan is to trash the ISS and the Ares V rocket, a heavy lift – lunar landing version of the Ares l, will take men to the moon and create settlements. If we keep on our current trajectory the timing should just about coincide with us destroying the better parts of Earth.

Wanting to get the full picture of the budget blowout, President Obama assembled a special panel to review just how bad the situation really was. They found it will most likely cost an extra $3 billion per year for NASA to achieve an expansion in human spaceflight. The Ares rocket’s cost has spiralled from $28 billion in 2006 to over $40 billion. The conclusion is that at present financing levels, about $100 billion for human spaceflight in the decade from 2010 to 2020, the current program was, in the panel’s words, “not executable.” And we are whining about not being able to afford a few plasma screens in the break out area!

As a competent team should, they have developed a number of options for Obama to consider. The first is to increase the money for the human space program to at least $130 billion over the next decade, that one went over like a turd in a punchbowl. A second option is to bypass landing on the Moon and focus on long-duration space flights to Mars or an asteroid, maybe just go cruising around the solar system. They have also considered cancelling the Constellation program all together – Constellation is the name for NASA’s plan to develop spacecraft and booster vehicles that will replace the shuttle including the Ares rocket. A final option being considered is to outsource to a private companies like Virgin Galactic or SpaceX, who already have contracts with the US government to transport cargo.

As designers we can surely sympathysise with the guys at NASA, which one of us could claim we have never exceeded our budget, particularly when it wasn’t set high enough in the first place? There have no doubt been cost overruns, but let us not forget it was GW Bush who set the budget in the first place and we all know his english skills were lacking, one can only assume his abilities in maths were the same. Also, as is the case with many of our clients, priorities have changed along the way.

As an indicaiton, during the 1960s, NASA commanded an army of 400,000 people who were in charge of designing and building Apollo– three times the number of Americans deployed in Iraq in 2007. Today, at Lockheed Martin, there are 1,600 people working on Constellation supported by another 600 at NASA. Overall, Constellation uses fewer than 5% of the number of people Apollo did. While Obama is said to support the desire to go back to the moon by 2020, he doesn’t have the space passion that JFK had and who can blame him with the economy, Afganastan, the environment and the American health care system to worry about.
Whether it’s space ships or giving up offices in your fitout, if the leader’s not engaged you might as well forget it.

The new passenger spaceship that is part of Constellation, called Orion, is no Ferrari either. Skip Hatfield the project manager at NASA describes it as more like a minivan, a vehicle to go to the shops in. They hope Orion will be reliable, functional and thoughtfully designed – more about utility than glamour. They are going to splurge on an onboard computer thank God. This is to house the FDFs, those are paper files, yes you read that right paper files, that script ever procedure. The FDFs must go into space with the astronauts so for easy access during launch they velcroed the files to their leg. I don’t know about you but I would say the online computer is not an extravagance.

One extravagance designers at NASA are debating is whether to include a hot water tank on Orion which will give the astronauts the capability to make coffee, they are also debating whether to have windows. That seems like a no brainer who wouldn’t want windows in a space ship, but quartz glass weighs more than metal hull and weight is what matters when you’re designing rockets. When consulted on the design Astronaut Edward Lu told the designers “I’ll trade food for larger windows.” Another, Lee Morin says the windows they purposed were, “like looking through a mail slot”–with no view of the horizon and unsatisfactory views for docking. I would say go for the windows, do you know what the insurance companies charge to repair a small ding?

Any time something is designed, a chair, a fitout or a new space ship there are trade offs between what is functional and what works technologically, what we can afford and what we want, what the designer wants versus the end user. When it comes to designing rockets, space can be a very unforgiving place, if something goes wrong in our thinking, our design or human error the consequences can be fatal. Space is also a political minefield and for the Americans a symbol of their will and desire for exploration, determining the right amount of money to spend in an economy like ours in not for the faint of heart.

Like all of our clients, the rocket men at NASA need to strategically consider their design options and ask themselves what will deliver the greatest outcomes to the country and the world and like our clients, they need to do this in a context of not really knowing what the future will hold. This can be particularly tough when relying on other countries that may be your friend today, but perhaps not tomorrow.

They need to consider their designs strategically design things and at the same time need to protect what they are designing – According to recent congressional reports China has stepped up computer espionage attacks against the US, in 2005 cyber – burglars got into NASA’s computer system and were able to send large amounts of information to a computer systems in Taiwan. The threat from China is so great there.

Of course they also need the flexibility to deal with new circumstances e.g. wars, environmental disasters, threats to life as we know it, and if
necessary deviate from the agreed path.Also like every business today they need to maintain their course and not get distracted by other things.

The other things in NASA’s case are computer espionage attacks from China, bringing their 80 data centres together into a single location and staying hip and with the times by engaging the public in their own
version of Facebook, called Spacebook.

For a deeper perspective on the topic listen to
this months podcast interview with:

Brett Stanewich
Active Thermal Control Systems
International Space Station
The Boeing Company
Houston, TX

They also provide mission updates on twitter, when the Phoenix Lander got to Mars its first message was “Gee it’s cold up here”. I would have said some other words, but that might have exceeded the 148
character threshold.

At the end of the day, whether you’re NASA, Geyer, or any of the company, it is helpful if not critical to not only know your vision and values, but to understand what they might mean. If your behaviours and actions don’t align, then perhaps it is necessary made adjustments.
You can’t be an environmental leader and be in a 3 star building
and you can’t be courageous if you really want to maintain the status
quo.

We are coming to a time of greater honesty and accountability where hypocritical behaviours will be as acceptable as single sided copies and plastic grocery bags, one of the best things we can do as individuals,
an organisation and as a consultant to our clients is to help navigate the course by asking ourselves who we really are.

Sources:

Executive Breakfast Forum – An Interview with Narelle Hooper, editor of AFR BOSS magazine, with David Smith, CEO of HBOS Australia and Virginia Mansell, Managing Director of SMG, August 6, 2009

Becker, Bo, Why Competition May Not Improve Credit Rating Agencies, HBR Working Knowledge, August 31, 2009

Condon, Turi; Construction Job Losses Mount as Funds Dry Up, The Australian, July 16, 2009

Kahler, Alison, High Anxiety , AFR Boss, July 2009

Mansell, Virginia, Staff Under Siege. Business Week, December 15, 2003

Smith, Fiona, Message Wins Workers Hearts, Australian Financial Review, March 3, 2009

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