In the '60s, NASA rose to prominence as the space race fueled by the Cold War showcased the United States' competitive spirit in the race to the moon. But once that goal was met, it was clear the USSR couldn't keep up the momentum, U.S. funding dropped off and NASA has been on little more than life support since.
The decision to refocus NASA was actually consistent with good business practice, while the decision to sustain it largely unchanged after reaching the moon was not, though that is more common. We don't like change, but as managers, are required to deal with it. By not doing so for an extended period, NASA became more of a problem than an asset. Let's talk about that today.
Losing Track of Goals
The primary goal for the space race wasn't scientific advancement or even exploration, it was getting a foothold first on a potential strategic military asset -- space -- and focusing a nation on something other than its problems. But as each milestone was achieved, the reason for the program became increasingly muddy. As a result, milestones started drifting out and funding also became increasingly elusive.
This is true of many, if not most, long-term projects that last longer than the executives who started them. It is actually kind of amazing that the United States made it to the moon given that the president who started the effort died prematurely well before that goal was achieved.
As governments and companies age, the executives who run them change. The motivations for projects can erode, and companies can lose focus. NASA went from being a national program firmly based on national security to one that seemed far less focused, had more problems and became more difficult to fund.
Early Warning: Drifting Milestones
While the United States arrived at the moon reasonably quickly, its later milestones -- moon bases, space stations, manned expeditions to Mars -- started drifting out massively. It took less than a decade to put the first man on the moon, but the shuttle likely should have been a commercial project in the first place given that it was more like a scheduled delivery and repair service. Probes and robots continued to go out, but the program's energy had largely evaporated.
While it might not have been externally clear what was broken, when milestones start shifting out by years or especially decades, it indicates a program that needs to be rethought or shut down. Otherwise, such projects become a money hole with little or no chance of achieving their remaining goals and objectives.
When those funding a project lose track of the program's goals or no longer find them compelling, it's generally best to pull the plug on the project or radically redesign it. From that point on, it'll be tough to get funding and those remaining backers will be increasingly dissatisfied. It is generally better to significantly change direction on a project and focus the remaining funds on achievable goals.
Large companies and governments tend to suffer from too many projects that are all underfunded and failing. It is always better to have fewer fully funded projects because it increases the chance of success with some of them. That means either cutting underfunded projects or redesigning them against current goals and resources.
Wrapping Up: The NASA Lesson
Like any major project, once the initial goal is achieved, the effort needs to be revalidated. Long-term projects need to be under constant review to make sure their goals remain achievable with the available funding. If they aren't, the hard choices are to increase funding to make the goals achievable, to alter the goals to match the funding or to cut funding entirely. The world often changes a great deal in a decade. Programs that last longer than this likely need to be heavily altered to assure they remain relevant or they are likely to be discontinued outright.
Management is paid to make hard decisions. Sometimes the hardest is to realize that you simply can't afford to do anything and to pick those things you can do. It is generally better to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly.