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October 30, 2009: Volume 2, Issue 10


What does sustainability mean in an organization like NASA?

When I began working at NASA in the mid-1980s, the term “sustainability” did not come up in conversation. There were certainly people at NASA who were working on issues such as improving the fuel efficiency of jet engines, but the concept of sustainability was not a mainstream concern.n.

That has changed. Just days after the Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership and the Environmental Management Division co-hosted a Masters Forum devoted to green engineering, President Obama signed an Executive Order that set sustainability goals for federal agencies. In mid-October, the 60th International Astronautical Congress focused on the theme Space for Sustainable Peace and Progress. Sustainability has arrived, but there is little consensus about its definition.

Sustainability means different things to different people. Some use it as a synonym for “environmentally friendly.” I interpret it more broadly to refer to principles and practices that enable long-term societal progress. From a NASA standpoint, sustainability is above all a systems thinking challenge: it demands that we consider our missions in terms of resources, byproducts, waste, and the environment (both on Earth and in space). Project management has taught us to think about life-cycle costs. Sustainability tackles questions of life-cycle impact, which can extend far beyond the duration of a mission.

Beyond principles and practices, the concept of sustainability as I understand it is also one of values. We tend to think of our values as fixed beliefs, but some values do change over time in reaction to experience. Safety, for example, became a paramount issue for NASA after the Apollo 1 fire, rising to the level of a core value for NASA because of the importance we place on the lives of our astronauts. The extent to which we ensure long-term societal progress through our work says something about our values.

The larger challenge here relates to the difficulty of effecting deep systemic change. We often look at change initiatives and declare them failures when we don’t see results in weeks, months or even years. Some take root over decades. Consider cigarette smoking in public places as an example. In the early 1970s, smoking was commonplace virtually everywhere in society. Over time, attitudes and behaviors shifted as a result of a series of complex and interrelated developments, including education, advocacy, regulation, legislation, and changing cultural norms. Nearly forty years after cigarette ads were first banned from television in the United States, real change has taken place in many parts of the world. We often get the timeline wrong when thinking about change. That doesn’t mean we should be complacent when things take longer than expected—but we shouldn’t we lose sight of the long view either.

Where NASA is concerned, much of our work already addresses broad questions of sustainability. Our Earth-observing missions enable scientists to determine the health of the planet. We are a world leader in the study of space debris, which poses risks to our spacecraft in Earth orbit. Our aeronautics research addresses more efficient aircraft designs and the next generation of air traffic control systems, both of which have the potential to reduce the environmental impact of air travel. Those are just a few examples among many.

The challenge of embracing sustainability in all our missions will not take place overnight in an energy-intensive endeavor like space flight. In addition to systems thinking, it will require innovation and technology development. Once again, NASA has an opportunity to lead the aerospace world in a new direction. The bell has rung.

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