Here’s something to celebrate: Saturday, NASA’s Opportunity rover celebrated the tenth anniversary of it’s landing on Mars and it’s still going strong, even though its planned mission life was only three months.

This isn’t a fluke. Cassini, an international collaboration managed by NASA that originated in 1982, launched in 1997, entered orbit around Saturn in 2004, and completed its planned mission in 2008. It’s still going strong.

Then there are the two Voyager probes, the Curiosity rover, the Chandra orbiting X-ray observatory … what’s interesting about NASA projects is that these sorts of spectacular successes have become ordinary.

Unlike, say, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), whose most noteworthy large-scale projects in the same span of years — those would be Medicare Plan D and — were, shall we say, challenged.

As pointed out in this space when’s problems became newsworthy, using, and for that matter challenged state exchanges like Minnesota’s MNSure, as evidence that “government can’t do anything right,” is just plain ridiculous. If that was the case, NASA’s string of successes would have been a string of failures, NASA being a part of the federal government and all.

Were we to conclude that the Department of Health and Human Services should never be entrusted with a large-scale project, we’d at least have a sample size of two on our side. But even then, other than the joy we all experience when we’re able to point our fingers at someone else to say, “Aren’t they just awful?” there’s nothing interesting about a conclusion like this.

It gets interesting when we ask what the difference is between NASA and HHS. There are two. The first is that, following two embarrassing missions to Mars that failed, NASA decided to find out what it was doing wrong, and to fix it. It commissioned an in-depth investigation and took the results seriously.

Following Medicare Plan D and, the investigation, if that’s the proper term, came from a Congressional committee. Even if we eschew (gesundheit!) the easy, snide comment, there’s still an obvious contrast to be drawn: NASA’s investigation was led by experts in managing large programs. Congressional investigations are run by elected representatives, whose nearest equivalent of a large program is a re-election campaign.

So that’s the first difference. The second, and more important one, is that NASA is in the big projects business. Big projects … missions … are what NASA does for a living.

HHS is, in contrast, in the operations business, and it’s actually quite good at it. For example, Medicare’s administrative overhead is either one or six percent of total expenditures, depending on whether the metric includes the administrative overhead of the private contractors the Medicare program uses. For comparison, the Affordable Care Act establishes a ceiling of 18% for health insurers, a restriction that created quite a stir in the industry.

The point being that HHS isn’t in the large projects business, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising that it isn’t very good at them.

We can go deeper than that. The leadership, management, and cultural traits that make an organization good at operations are in many respects antithetical to those that make an organization good at project management.

Operations is about keeping things the same. Think of a factory and you get the picture: the job is to do the same thing over and over again, in very much the same way, so as to minimize variation and incremental cost while maximizing throughput.

Operations planning is all about matching capacity and staffing to anticipated demand. It’s a day-to-day thing.

Projects are about making things different. Project planning is all about figuring out what the tasks are to change things or build something new, how they have to be sequenced, who is best equipped to take each one on, and how long they should be expected to take.

Operations tasks, that is, are known because they’re repeated over and over again. Each project task is, in contrast, in some respect unique. They’d better be, because each one would have already been done by someone else. The project should use that result instead of creating an identical copy.

Operations never finishes. No matter what gets done today, we’ll do more of it tomorrow. Projects, by definition, are supposed to end.

I am oversimplifying. NASA is also in the operations business. Otherwise there wouldn’t be anyone around to receive all the data its successful missions keep sending back to Earth.

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t describe things that way. Its operations are considered part of the mission, and while missions may be extended, they’re never considered eternal.

There’s always an end date.