NASA and Atrophy: The Cost of Losing Momentum

written by David Mixson

If you stop performing a task, you start losing the ability to do the task proficiently. It’s called atrophy.

A bedridden patient quickly loses their ability to walk. A baseball pitcher gets rusty if he doesn’t throw for a month. A dancer starts making mistakes if she stops practicing.

The same holds for a space agency that goes for a long period of time without designing new things that blast off into space. It becomes less proficient.

It atrophies.

NASA hasn’t designed a new liquid rocket motor since the ‘80s, landed on the moon last in the ‘70s, and just went nine years (between 2011 and 2020) without launching an astronaut into space from American soil. NASA has atrophied.

Glenn Gaffney, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Science and Technology Directorate, said it this way.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we have today is that a number of our capabilities in the space arena have atrophied.”1

Filing the Gap

After the Shuttle stopped flying in 2011, thousands of experienced engineers and skilled technicians lost their jobs because we didn’t have a vehicle to manage and fly. In addition to that, most of the top program managers and chief engineers from the Shuttle era have since left or retired.

Because of this gap, NASA has been forced to fill some programs with civil servant managers who have little experience managing major flight hardware programs.

This is the price of going nine years without an operational launch vehicle to build, process, launch, and fly. NASA has atrophied, and it shows.

NASA Engineers

All this doesn’t mean NASA engineers are bad engineers. It just means they haven’t done it before and shouldn’t be expected to be very good at it—at least not like a team that’s done it dozens of times, and certainly not as good as a team that’s done it hundreds of times.

Practice Your Craft

There’s a popular saying that goes something like this. To become a master at your craft, you need to practice doing it for 10,000 hours.3

If you want to become a better writer, write 3,000 words every day for six months. If you want to build a better airplane, design a new airplane every year. If you want to build a better rocket motor, build and test rocket motors every day for a decade—or two.

Here’s the Problem. NASA isn’t doing any of this—and we haven’t been doing it for a very long time. Test stands that used to be used on a daily basis stand ideal. As a substitute, we focus on writing better requirements, thinking that’s how you build a better rocket—but it isn’t. This is why Old Space NASA has been struggling to design and build a new launch vehicle for decades.

A Comparison

Old Space NASA’s most current man-rated liquid rocket motor was designed in the ’80s and flew on the Shuttle nearly two decades ago. Nearly all of the engineers who designed those motors are either retired or dead.

SpaceX, in comparison, has designed, tested, built, and flown several new liquid rockets in the last decade. For their new LOX/Methane Raptor engine designed for Starship, they’re manufacturing a brand new rocket motor every single day.4

It’s simply impossible for NASA propulsion engineers to become as proficient when we haven’t designed a new motor in forty years.

Experience Matters

If you need help painting your house, find someone who has painted hundreds of houses. If you need help fixing a transmission, find someone who has rebuilt thousands of transmissions.

If you want to launch people into space, find organizations that have launched stuff into space a bunch of times—recently. Unfortunately, today’s NASA doesn’t have much experience doing that over the past decade.

Final Thoughts

I’m afraid there isn’t an easy fix for this—short of hiring experienced project managers and engineers from outside the agency. Unfortunately, I doubt they would stay for very long with our zealous building managers and dysfunctional obsession with safety.

Sure, New Space has lapped Old Space, but that doesn’t mean we should put our heads in the sand. Old Space NASA had a different playing field and a different set of parameters.

But there’s great news in all this. If done right, we have the possibility of having more space in the next decade than ever before.

More on that in future articles.



3. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers. Critics have argued the specifics of the rule, but most agree that practice does make perfect.


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About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

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