Performance Metrics: The Common Sense Guide to Measuring NASA’s Success


  • Measuring NASA’s Performance

  • The Wrong Performance Metrics

  • The Right Performance Metrics

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In 1962, President Kennedy gave NASA the challenge of reaching the moon by the end of the decade. Seven years later, Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. Apollo was an incredible accomplishment.

Between 1981 and 2011, NASA flew the Shuttle 135 times. And even though we lost two vehicles, Shuttle was an incredible accomplishment.

Then from 2011 to 2020, NASA didn’t launch a single astronaut into space.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost our way when it comes to defining the parameters to measure NASA’s success. Instead, NASA hides behind made-up metrics that have nothing to do with space or inspiring our youth.

Don’t get me wrong. NASA does some things well.

We spend money in as many congressional districts as possible. We print pretty posters of things we did in the past and things we say we’re going to do in the future. We force large companies to dole out major chunks of their contracts to small businesses that only exist because the owner has a particular set of grading criteria.

And we have lots of safety meetings to talk about the importance of using sunscreen and washing our hands after we use the restroom.

But are these really the metrics we should use to measure our success?

Here’s a crazy thought. Wouldn’t the number of astronauts launched into space in the last twelve months be a better metric than how many small business awards NASA received last year?

But I believe NASA’s real mission is to do even more than that. Imagine the power of a performance metric like this.

“How many elementary-aged kids were so inspired by something NASA did in the last sixty days that their jaw dropped in awe?”

These are the metrics that are missing from the agency that took us to the moon and back. And it’s time we do something about it.

Unfortunately, today’s NASA uses smoke and mirrors to disguise its recent performance. We celebrate the successes of our past to mask the failures of our present. We vote ourselves as the best place in government to work, and managers taunt this as a reason for our existence.

And we tell the world we’re closer to Mars than ever before, hoping our excitement will keep them from asking us why we haven’t made it there already.

In the articles below, I’ll make the case that NASA should be held to a higher standard than lazy metrics that don’t matter. This begins with accountability—which starts today.

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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.