—If all had gone according to plan, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) would be celebrating its 10th anniversary of capturing stunning portraits of distant galaxies, NASA would be hard at work on its dark energy detector, Virgin Galactic would be running two daily tourist flights to the edge of space for just $50,000 a head, and a Russian company would be doing brisk business with its orbiting luxury space hotel.
Of course, that’s not how it worked out in reality. Last month, Virgin Galactic made its tenth annual prediction that “next year” it will finally shuttle tourists to space, joining the JWST on the horizon of 2018, and the inaugural mission of NASA’s new Space Launch System slipped to 2019. As for that space hotel, don’t ask.
Planning for the future is part of what it means to be human, but cognitive biases, development challenges, and financing conventions conspire to make accurate predictions next to impossible. With forecasting occupying a central role in our greatest ambitions from space to construction, economists and engineers alike are harnessing new tools that let the past inform the future, aiming to make prediction more science and less art.
At the root of the problem is the tendency to take the optimism generated by a grand idea and overlay that on the execution without applying the critical rigor required to foresee the inevitable hurdles that are likely to complicate the process. Known to psychology for decades, the Planning Fallacy describes the tendency to overstate chances of finishing tasks on time, despite memories of past projects having rarely gone as planned.
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