Monday, April 2nd, 2012 - 19:59
The space shuttle was a remarkable technological creation—
perhaps the most complex machine ever built.
The space shuttle was a remarkable technological creation— perhaps the most complex machine ever built. It was also an extraordinary government program. It began officially in 1972, when President Richard Nixon authorized its start. It ended in July 2011 when the last shuttle landed safely. The lifetime cost of the program was $209 billion.
Was the shuttle worth the investment? There is disagreement. In my view, it was—but there are downsides to the program. There are positive and negative lessons to be drawn from the shuttle experience. The aim of this essay is to suggest lessons for leadership of large-scale, long-term technological programs that have national significance.
In an earlier article, I wrote of lessons from Apollo. But Apollo was unique—a best-case example of agency and national leadership. It showed technological management at its optimum. The space shuttle presents other lessons, the kinds that come from “normal programs.” In such programs, not only are lessons mixed, but they sometimes are conflicted.
Leadership of government programs always involves politics and management. Administrative leaders work at the boundary between an organization with a task to perform and a political environment of president, Congress, rival agencies, interest groups, and other forces. As with the space shuttle, certain programs encompass politics, administration, and technology. Politics and administration shape technology, but technology also shapes politics and administration, since it provides both new options and problems. The space shuttle experience illuminates how NA SA leaders have sought to manage a large-scale, long-term technological program in a political environment. Their decisions have led to the shuttle’s successes, as well as flaws in running the program.
Read the entire article.