This isn’t an essay on how to build rockets, or the technical merits of different launch, fuel or manufacturing systems. Both of which I’m wholly unqualified to comment on. However I do know something about solution-first thinking, and poor management decisions. I was reminded by this failure while reading an article about the SLS rocket failure.

Let’s unpack some of the key organizational failures that likely led to a failed outcome and over $17b spent.

Solution First Thinking. Aka, if all you have is hammer, everything is a nail. Lawmakers, with self-serving interests set this in motion, “The law said NASA must extend or modify existing contracts to build the rocket and ensure the “retention” of critical skills”. This is clearly different from John Kennedy’s approach, which sets the direction and gives a clear why? “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. How many of us have seen this before? Where leaders think a-priori they know the right answer! One challenge I see in product development teams so frequently is a focus on solutions, with out starting with the why or a hypothesis. It’s natural, we’re all builders. This is typically compounded by a few factors. Most managers came from technical backgrounds, attributing their success to knowing the answer. The best place to make technical decisions is the people closest to the work, they have the most relevant information, and also have a stake in the final outcome

Sunk-cost fallacy. “proponents of this design argued that relying on space shuttle hardware would keep costs and technical issues to a minimum.” Sound familiar? “when NASA’s inspector general studied why it had taken so long to develop the SLS rocket, he found that the core stage, booster, and RS-25 engine programs had all experienced technical challenges and performance issues that led to delays and cost overruns.” 

Contrast this to SpaceX’s approach, which is built in rapid learning, questioning all assumptions (many small engines!). A great company, team or product manager will always start with first principles thinking. They’ll try to strip out as much as possible to focus on the core thesis and build up from there. I wonder if this is something that both our elected officials and those entrusted with our space programs should consider.

Remember, stay humble.