NASA and SpaceX: A Conflict of Business Personalities

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Image by The Infographics Show, Jul 10, 2017

For those who care, here’s another great illustration of the difference between managers and leaders in the business world of the U.S. Those familiar with my writing know of the fascinating theories of former Harvard Business School Professor Abraham Zaleznik that were first published in a 1977 Harvard Business Review article called “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?

To review, in Zaleznik’s view, managers get things done through processes and systems, while leaders accomplish tasks through creativity and exploration. One insists upon order; the other is comfortable with what seems like chaos to some.

I’m a staunch supporter of Elon Musk and his way of doing things. Musk is a leader, one who simply points his company in the direction of his vision in order to see what happens. Risk is a familiar friend to people like Musk, because they know instinctively that answers to complex problems can’t always be determined ahead of time. Instead, they require experimentation. And risk.

Enter NASA into the equation. To be sure, NASA is manager-heavy, as are all government bureaucracies. Read this simple statement in an article by Futurism from new NASA administrator Steve Jurczyk when asked about NASA’s support for Elon Musk’s Starship program. Jurczyk seems to be saying “no thanks,” but it’s his reasoning that reveals the real problem for NASA with SpaceX.

“I know what the timelines are for the [Space Launch System], but it’s hard to determine what the timeline is and capabilities are for the Starship,” Jurczyk said in a new interview with Futurism. He added that it’s “just hard for me to determine how we would leverage capabilities like Starship and the Super Heavy that would launch Starship without understanding their timeline, their capabilities, and a lot more detail.”

As a result, Jurczyk points to NASA’s own system as better prepared for real manned space missions.

“What I can say now is that the Space Launch System is farther along than the Starship or any other commercial [project] with respect to a super heavy-lift capability that’s purpose-built for human spaceflight missions,” he said.

Jurczyk wants to see SpaceX’s plan. Moreover, he wants to govern that plan. However, SpaceX doesn’t really have an elaborate plan until they figure out a few things first. This is an insurmountable conflict between the basic methods of getting things done, because Musk literally cannot provide a true business plan with timelines that Jurczyk and his other managers could and would pick apart based on their understanding of how space exploration must proceed. They want their checklists and their timelines. They’re in no hurry either, and that has to gall Elon Musk.

The chilling thing is that our government has authority over private sector practices in the name of public safety, which they are already using to slow the momentum that Musk has with Starship. Headlines of violations of the FAA rules governing rocket launches cost SpaceX nearly an entire week before resolution. During that time, Musk criticized the FAA for its outdated approach to spaceflight testing. What he was really angry with was being hand strapped by rules that seem unnecessary to SpaceX in the accomplishment of its goals. Musk isn’t being arrogant when he makes such claims, and Jurczyk isn’t being foolish in asking for Musk’s detailed plans. They are simply two different approaches to doing business.

The question is always which one should be in charge?