NASA and the Space Shuttle Program
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - NASA and the Space Shuttle Program
NASA and the Space Shuttle Program
By Oleg Nekrassovski
According to the Miles and Snow typology of organizational strategies, prospectors are
organizations that constantly look for new market opportunities, and engage in regular
experimentation “with potential responses to emerging environmental trends” (Andrews et al.,
2012, p. 49). So, when it comes to public organizations, a prospector is usually a leader in their
field, innovation awards winner, and/or a ‘first mover.’ Prospecting public agencies often seek
to expand their budget, frequently invade the ‘policy space’ of other agencies, or if forced to
operate within their pre-existing budget, will attempt to innovate by taking advantage of
organizational slack wherever possible (Andrews et al., 2012). The present paper will take a
look at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and will attempt to illustrate
the extent to which it was a prospecting public agency, around the time, and in the light, of its
proposal of the Space Shuttle Program. Along the way the paper will also take a look at NASA’s
contemporary stakeholders and its research and development strategy.
In the late 1960s, when manned lunar landings were already set to go, NASA started to
eagerly look for a new direction for its human space flight capability. What it came up with was,
of course, the Space Shuttle Program (Gordon, 2008). However, selling the idea to the Congress
and the American public was not easy as both were already becoming bored with space flights
and astronauts. Perhaps more importantly, the country was, at that time, preoccupied with the
Vietnam War, which was incurring high expenses. So, the mood in Washington was to cut
funding for civilian space programs, not increase it. So, NASA began to ‘pull various strings’ in
order to secure the desired funds (Gordon, 2008).
The Space Shuttle Program had a number of external supporters, all of whom wanted to
believe that the program was a good financial investment. But NASA’s top officials knew that,
as with many other space projects, the Space Shuttle Program was never going to be profitable.
So, they made sure to say nothing about that (Gordon, 2008). At the same time, NASA won
additional support, for the funding of this new program, by arguing that this totally new space
technology was essential for the U.S. to build and employ if it wanted to keep up in the space
race with the Soviet Union, which despite being beaten in the race to the moon, was clearly
ahead of the Americans in its use of space stations (Gordon, 2008). Finally, NASA decided to
also tap into the much larger budget of the U.S. military, which, at the time, was looking for
more and more ways to access space. The Department of Defense readily took up NASA’s offer
of partnership, and the two agencies started an active collaboration, even though some of
NASA’s officials feared that, by collaborating with the Pentagon, NASA put itself at risk of losing
control over the entire program, somewhere down the road (Gordon, 2008).
NASA’s efforts in securing greater funding, for the Space Shuttle Program, paid off. And
in 1971, the Congress approved funding for the design and construction of three shuttle
prototypes (Gordon, 2008). However, NASA’s leaders quickly realized that each year they will
still have to fight over their budget with the reluctant Congress. Consequently, they decided
that they could win these fights by making sure that the progress of their program is well-
publicized; and by reporting each of its stages as a complete success, even though technical
goals will not always be met (Gordon, 2008). Also, fortunately for NASA, President Nixon
thought that the Space Shuttle Program will considerably increase his political support by
increasing employment in the key states that he needed for reelection. Consequently, he
ordered his administration to start ‘selling’, to the American public, the idea that the Space
Shuttle will “revolutionize space transportation” (Gordon, 2008).
Apparently, however, either these measures were insufficient to persuade the Congress
to give NASA sufficient funds, or NASA’s officials simply underestimated the funds that each
stage of the Space Shuttle Program would require. Either way, the end result was that the
Space Shuttle Program usually suffered from underfunding and was behind schedule (Gordon,
2008). Apparently, to compensate for the insufficient level of funding for this and other of its
programs, NASA habitually transferred the engineers, that were working on the Space Shuttle
Program, to work on its other, no less underfunded, programs, the moment the designs
required by the Space Shuttle Program, at the moment, were completed; instead of keeping
these engineers on the Shuttle Program to monitor developments. Quite likely, this practice
brought Shuttle safety to lower levels (Gordon, 2008).
Thus, NASA’s behaviour with regards to and around its budget, for the proposed Space
Shuttle Program, as well as the extent to which it engaged in activities which were also
performed by other agencies, clearly shows that, at the time, NASA was, in many ways, a
prospecting public agency. However, the above narrative also throws some light on NASA’s
stakeholders, especially those who had stakes in the Space Shuttle Program.
Joyce (2012) argues that the set of all relevant stakeholders of a public organization
depends on the strategic action under consideration. So, following this, it can be seen from the
above narrative that the main stakeholders, with regards to NASA’s attempts to obtain greater
funding for the Space Shuttle Program, were (1) the Congress, (2) the American public, (3) the
Pentagon, and (4) President Nixon.
Joyce (2012) recommends representing the positions of stakeholders, regarding the
strategic action under consideration, using two dimensions. One is their attitude towards the
proposed strategic action; in particular, whether they are likely to assist it or block it. And the
other is the power of each stakeholder. Joyce (2012) further recommends using a scale of -10 to
+10 to represent stakeholders’ attitude towards the proposed action; where a stakeholder who
is very unhappy about the proposed action would be assigned a score of -10; while a score of
+10 would be given to those stakeholders who would be very pleased and delighted with the
proposed action; and a score of zero would indicate neutrality (i.e. neither in favour nor
against) regarding the proposed action. Similarly, Joyce (2012) also recommends using a scale
of 1 to 10 to represent the power of relevant stakeholders to assist or block the proposed
strategic action; where a score of 1 would indicate that the stakeholder under consideration is
very weak; while a score of 10 would only be assigned to a very powerful stakeholder. So, based
on what has been said before, about the four main stakeholders and their initial level of
support for, and the ability to influence funding for the Space Shuttle Program, it seems
reasonable to assign them scores similar to those given them in Table 1.
Table 1 - Adapted from Joyce (2012)
Stakeholder group Initial attitude towards
greater funding of the Space
Shuttle Program (-10 to +10)
Power of the stakeholder
group with regards to
funding of the Space Shuttle
Program (1 to 10)
1) Congress 0 10
2) American Public 0 5*
3) Pentagon +8 8†
4) President Nixon +8 3‡
The public could pressure its Congressional representatives, but had no direct power.
The Pentagon could (and did) directly fund the Program, but the funds it provided proved
The President could (and did) use his administration to advertise the Program to the public,
but couldn’t do much else to help it.
But what were some of the general elements of the final plan for the Space Shuttle
The officially stated aim of the Space Shuttle Program was to develop a space shuttle to
fulfill the various space transportation needs of NASA, US Department of Defense, and other US
users in the 1980s (Comptroller General of the United States, 1972). The proposed space
shuttle was intended to be the first reusable space vehicle. It was intended to put satellites into
orbit, retrieve them from orbit, make it possible to repair and service satellites in-orbit, deliver
satellites and propulsion stages (tugs) to low earth orbit, and conduct scientific and engineering
experiments in low earth orbit (Comptroller General of the United States, 1972). From this it
can be concluded that NASA’s research and development (R&D) strategy of the time
corresponded to that of technological leadership, which involves pioneering an innovation
(Wheelen and Hunger, 2012).
Also, the reusability and the range of functions for the proposed shuttle support the
Space Shuttle Program’s claim of seeking to (1) considerably reduce the cost of space
operations, and (2) provide a new space transportation capability which would be able to
support a wide variety of scientific, defense, and commercial uses (Comptroller General of the
United States, 1972). This indicates that NASA tried to pass off its R&D strategy of technological
leadership, as the type which is aimed at producing a cost advantage for the organization. An
organizational R&D strategy which seeks cost advantage, while pursuing technological
leadership, pioneers the least-costing product and/or process design; seeks to make its
organization the first in going down the new learning curve; and seeks to develop the least-
costing ways of performing valuable activities (Wheelen and Hunger, 2012).
Thus, NASA’s proposed Space Shuttle Program clearly shows that, at the time, NASA
was, or at least worked hard on creating an image of being, an industry leader, a bold
innovator, and the ‘first mover’; all of which are some of the key characteristics of a prospector.
Andrews, R., Boyne, G. A., Law, J., Walker, R. M. (2012). Strategic management and public
service performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Comptroller General of the United States. (1972). Cost-benefit analysis used in support of the
Space Shuttle Program, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report to the
Congress. Available at http://archive.gao.gov/f0302/096542.pdf.
Gordon, R. M. (2008). The space shuttle program: How NASA lost its way. Jefferson: McFarland
Joyce, P. (2012). Strategic leadership in the public services. London: Routledge.
Wheelen, T. L., and Hunger, J. D. (2012). Strategic management and business policy: Toward
global sustainability. Boston: Pearson.