Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Administrative Entrepreneurship and Space Technology: The Ups and Downs of "Mission to Planet Earth."

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Administrative Entrepreneurship and Space Technology: The Ups and Downs of "Mission to Planet Earth."

Article excerpt

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an agency seeking to pour new wine into old bottles as the post-cold War era evolves. NASA is as close to a "pure technology" agency as exists in the U.S. federal government. It conducts and supports research and development (R&D) at the frontier of knowledge. Its work is most visibly associated with missions from earth, such as manned space launches and planetary science missions. Yet it is now the locus of a major new program attuned to the global environment called Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE).

A study of MTPE gives insights into the difficulties government organizations face in seeking change, and how new large-scale technologies are shaped by the political/policy process. It points up the role of administrative leaders in charting a course for new technology and how their strategies succeed and fail. There is great interest in the subject of administrative entrepreneurship and innovation (Doig and Hargrove, 1987).(2) There is also interest in administrative constraints, barriers that are part of democracy's checks and balances on bureaucracy and the technologies it promotes (Wilson, 1991). NASA's Mission to Planet Earth illuminates well the politics of emergent technology in the contemporary era. It reveals how administrative entrepreneurs build political support for their technologies, and the factors that constrain them in keeping that support over time.

Mission to Planet Earth

Proclaimed under another name in 1982, MTPE is a NASA program to develop a sequence of ever-more sophisticated satellites to monitor the ills of the planet. The first MTPE satellite is presently monitoring the ozone depletion problem. Future satellites will probe the ocean dynamics and investigate climate change. The centerpiece of MTPE and by far the dominant element in the program is the Earth Observation System (EOS). EOS is now configured as a group of satellites, flying in formation, providing a relatively comprehensive and simultaneous view of land, sea, atmosphere interactions. This system includes a computer-based element on the ground to collect and disseminate information. EOS is critical to the vision of MTPE, and MTPE is integral to a broader national and international research program called Global Change. It is viewed as essential to answering many policy questions in this area.

The cost of the full program is uncertain because much of it lies ahead. One can envision a routine system of environmental monitoring in the 21st century. The problem is not the long-term future but the immediate present. Getting to the future takes money, organizational commitment, and agreement from many parties. The future can be delayed a very long time. EOS is in development, and launch of the first elements would not take place until near the end of this century. The present projection is that EOS will cost $8 billion for development between 1992 and 2000, with additional expenditures in the early 21st century. Although substantial, $8 billion is much less than the $17 billion projected for the same period just a brief time ago. That such a great change could occur so quickly is indicative of the uncertain political environment of contemporary technology policy.

The Political Construction of Technology

Virtually everyone welcomes the use of space technology for global environmental problems. The debate is over not whether, but what should constitute MTPE, and who should make the necessary determinations. NASA is the government entrepreneur, but only one actor among a number influencing the course of the technology. In understanding what has happened and why, it is useful to build on a growing body of knowledge called 'social construction of technology." This is primarily the work of sociologists and historians, and it is a counter to earlier literature that spoke of technology being out of control or having a life of its own (Bijker et al. …

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