Thinking Different?


Continuing to believe the same thing, even in the face of new evidence to the contrary, is the definition of insanity – except in politics where it’s called leadership.
–Scott Adams.

Recently, word leaked out that the Agency is preparing to announce a configuration of the next-generation NASA launch vehicle that is heavily derived from the retiring Space Shuttle, rumored for announcement near July 8 – the scheduled launch date for the final Space Shuttle mission.  If true, then we will see a proposal in keeping to the letter-of-the-law outlined in Sec. 302 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.  Yet it is not without some trepidation that I view these developments.  Why?

The concepts behind a shuttle-derived solution are outlined later in Sec. 302 of the Act:

“[T]he Administrator shall, to the extent practicable, extend or modify existing vehicle development and associated contracts necessary to meet the [Space Launch System] requirements…”

“The Administrator shall ensure critical skills and capabilities are retained, modified, and developed, as appropriate, in areas related to solid and liquid engines, large diameter fuel tanks, rocket propulsion, and other ground test capabilities for an effective transition to the follow-on Space Launch System.”

What do I see as the foundation of the Act?

It preserves the status quo.  Using existing contracting vehicles and infrastructure preserves the status quo.  A number of the contracts awarded for Constellation work could be modified or restructured into what the Agency will propose in a few weeks.  That keeps several large aerospace firms engaged in current work.

It is the path of least resistance.  Little to no organizational changes in the Agency are needed, and traditional roles are preserved.  Launches will continue to be supported by the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, vehicle development by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, engine testing by the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and astronaut training and mission operations here in Houston at the Johnson Space Center.  Therefore, the leadership doesn’t need to tackle hard issues about evolving roles of Centers, re-vectoring workforce skills, or divesting dated approaches and infrastructure.

Keeping in mind that the Act was authored in the Senate and approved by the House, it should be no surprise that the degree of change is small; after all, Congress is a friction-maximizing device, slow to change and, where it does change, tends to deal with transactional change.  The concern I have is that a business-as-usual approach to implement the Act ignores the reality of the situation we face fiscally and politically.

The Budget. NASA’s budget in current dollars has remained flat since 2000, averaging around $17.9 billion in today’s dollars.  The percentage of NASA’s budget dedicated to human spaceflight has fluctuated over the years, and and is slated to consume a little less than half of that budget. Although other parts of the NASA budget can (and have been) diverted to support a human spaceflight development program, other areas are facing challenges, too, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Politics. From a political standpoint, the Agency leadership and Congress appear to be at loggerheads. Between the questioning of commitment to the law and the threat of a supoena, it seems there is quite a bit of disfunction between the Agency and Congress.  This is somewhat reminiscent of a little over 20 years ago, when another Administration proposed a follow-up to the shuttle called the Space Exploration Initiative, intended to land humans on Mars eventually.  In this case, the disfunction was between the Agency and the White House instead of Congress, and eventually the Space Exploration Initiative was abandoned for the the “faster, better, cheaper” approach of the mid-1990’s.

In looking at the realities of the situation, what is to prevent history from repeating itself? We could be right here again in 2013 or 2017 with the next change in Administrations.

What is needed is the kind of leadership not afraid of embracing change, tacking the sacred cows, and seeking value with the greatest return on the American taxpayer dollar.  What is needed is recognition by the leadership that business-as-usual will not work and that NASA’s human spaceflight is in a renewal cycle.  What is needed is for the leadership to work together for the common goals and objectives outlined in the introductions of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and the NASA Strategic Plan 2011.

What is needed is to think different.

Text © 2011 Joe Williams

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/Stockphoto4u

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Thinking Different?

3 thoughts on “Thinking Different?

  1. I think this has more to do with Congress vs. Holdren and the Obama administration than Congress vs. NASA.

    The Obama administration pretty much forced the Congress to micro-manage NASA’s manned space program after the administration not only terminated any return to the Moon but also terminated any funding for a new crew launch vehicle while also continuing the policy of decommissioning the space shuttle. That pretty much left NASA with a big budget but no manned space program.

    Doing that at a time when Congress is desperately looking to cut wasteful government programs was clearly setting NASA up for huge budget cuts in the near future, IMO. So those in Congress who valued NASA’s manned space program had to step in.

    I think its been obvious for the last 20 years that NASA needs a shuttle derived LOX/LH2 heavy lift vehicle. And I really don’t understand all of the fondness for a petroleum based HLV that would make America more economically dependent on foreign fuels that increase global warming and global sea rise.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Marcel. That’s a fair assertion that it is Holdren (i.e., OSTP/White House) versus Congress as the source of disfunction. I tried to find recent policy statements or testimony from Holdren regarding human spaceflight, yet found nothing. With the vacuum of leadership that indicates, it is an opportunity for the Agency to step into the role and work directly with Congress to shape implementation. Maybe it’s just a breakdown of effective communication somewhere in the loop between Congressional leaders, their staff, NASA’s Office of Legislative Affairs, and the NASA leadership. At the very least, it’s an opportunity lost if the White House insists on being in the background.

  2. NASA’s tiny budget is so insignificant compared to the rest of the Federal government’s annual expenditures that those in the Obama administration probably don’t view NASA as a high priority.

    But I continue to believe that this is a huge political mistake on Obama’s part since we learned that in an electoral swing state like Florida– every single vote is of value.

    It would be ironic if Obama lost the election in 2012 because he lost the State of Florida by just a few hundred or a few thousand votes because of his lack of interest in our space program and the Space Coast.

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