Two Views on NASA Restructuring


In space policy circles, the House Space Subcommittee held a hearing this month on the restructuring of NASA. I found two different perspectives on this hearing, one normative and one descriptive. (On perspectives, descriptive is “the way things are”, and normative is “the way things ought to be.” Neither is wrong; they are simply two different perspectives.)

The descriptive view is from the ever excellent Marcia Smith, who describes details from the hearing in “Witnesses Support Goal of NASA Restructuring Legislation, But Not Specifics”.

The normative view is from Paul Spudis, who always tells you what he is thinking; his account in “Stability and Instability in Space” is no different.

Some tidbits from the hearing:

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin testified that “our space policy is bankrupt” and that the current space policy implementation offers “no dream, no vision, no plan, no budget, and no remorse.” Mike is always good for a quote or two. One of my favorites from my brief time in Washington during his tenure as NASA Administrator was “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”

Discussions addressed three provisions for legislation, with my comments afterwards:

  • Create a Board of Directors to govern NASA and submit its own budget request directly to Congress without going through OMB. Did you know that a GS-12 at OMB is in charge of establishing NASA’s budget? (Well, that is stretching the truth a little bit, but not by much!) I’ll go out on a limb and put my stock on the NASA budget created by the proposed Board of Directors, rather than the one established currently by a GS-12 at OMB.
  • Appoint the NASA Administrator for a fixed term of 10 years. This is similar to what is done for the FBI Director, who is appointed for a 10-year term. Other executives appointed in a similar manner but for different lengths are the NSF Director and FAA Administrator, who are appointed for six and five years, respectively.
  • Use “long term” contracting to permit NASA to contract for certain space acquisition needs at the outset. With today’s procurement restrictions, even though NASA authorizes the execution of the entire scope of a contract at the outset, the contract is still funded and budgeted on an annual basis. Using “long term” contracting is a capability similar to one that DoD has in certain areas, such as shipbuilding, and should mitigate somewhat the year-to-year policy and funding fights…and we know those are common occurrences in Congress nowadays.

Dr. Spudis uses the hearing as more evidence that the current space policy is a mess. According to Dr. Spudis, NASA’s space policy implementation has as its centerpiece a “#JourneytoMars” PR campaign, which he likens to “a hodge-podge of real hardware and fake missions, with a thick icing of Hollywood schmaltz…” This is clearly a normative argument.

Dr. Spudis also uses the hearing to support his ongoing narrative that US space policy needs to be adjusted to include a return to the lunar surface for longer-term stays and utilization. On this point we agree. Some of the comments to Dr. Spudis’s article are worth a read, too.   Many are in keeping with the normative tone that Dr. Spudis uses throughout his writings on space policy, but nevertheless raise valid points worth further discussion.

Overall, both articles are good reading about what is happening today in space policy circles. As for the likelihood that we will see any of the provisions incorporated into a bill to be enacted into law, it’s anyone’s guess. As to election politics, I fully expect space policy to play little to no role in the upcoming Presidential elections. I anticipate that it will be at least a year after the election – no sooner than early 2018 – for the new Presidential administration to decide if it is time to change course – yet again. Meanwhile, those of us in the space business will continue working towards the future.

Two Views on NASA Restructuring

Challenger at 30

This is a somber week for those of us in the space business as we pause and reflect on those who we lost. The Space Shuttle Challenger accident happened 30 years ago this week. Below are several links I collected that capture much of what I’m feeling this week.

NASA Day of Remembrance:

New York Times: The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster, 30 Years Later

NPR: 30 Years After Explosion, Challenger Engineer Still Blames Himself The Challenger seven remembered 30 years after STS-51L

Quartz: 30 years ago, NASA lost 7 astronauts in the Challenger explosion. Here’s how it moved forward.

For anyone middle age and older, I’m sure you can recall with crystal clarity where you were when news broke that Challenger exploded a little more than a minute into its flight. Either you saw it as it happened, or heard about it moments afterwards. I was newly in graduate school, having arrived at the University of Illinois a little more than a week before the accident. I remember being shocked, seeing the tragedy unfold before my eyes, and deeply saddened about the loss of life, asking myself, “Was it worth it?” President Reagan’s words afterwards convinced me that we needed to move forward while honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. His words helped build a resolve in me such that in a short two years after, I joined the ranks of the men and women who were at the time working to return Shuttles to flight. That’s where I’ve been ever since.

Challenger at 30

2015 in review

Many thanks to my loyal readers.  Here’s to a successful year just completed, and to the new year to come!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

2015 in review

Space Resource Rights


Last week, the President signed H.R. 2262, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015, into law. Noteworthy in the new law is a means for the United States to open up the commercial development of space beyond tourism by permitting firms to own the resources they extract from celestial bodies such as asteroids and moons.

A nice summary of the act and provision pertaining to resource rights is here.

Dr. Paul Spudis is more critical of the usefulness of the new law, which he examines here.

I don’t take as dim of a view as Dr. Spudis on the new law. Sure, H.R. 2262 skirts the problem of “property rights” by outright avoiding. Instead, it addresses the ownership of the resources extracted from celestial bodies without addressing property ownership. However, as a change enacted successfully in the current political environment, I consider H.R. 2262 as a necessary and good first step to spur development of companies willing to extract resources and make them available on the commercial market. Later, once the possibility of extraction becomes a reality, legislative steps can be enacted to address issues as they arise.

In the bigger picture, I see extraction of celestial resources as an example of a transformative change – one in which we can envision the basic concept, yet the means to accomplish the goal are so complex and the outcomes are so unpredictable that to encompass laws around it based on past precedent and what we know today would be counterproductive and naïve – and likely suppress the very thing we are attempting to grow. The provision on resource rights in H.R. 2262 is a step in the right direction.

Space Resource Rights



Today, the Cassini spacecraft is scheduled to make its closest approach ever to the Saturnian moon Enceladus. Flying to within 50 km of the surface, Cassini hopes to probe the chemical makeup of the geysers spewing from the south pole of Enceladus. Previous investigations indicate the high probability of an ocean beneath the crust of Enceladus, and this latest investigation will seek the tell-tale signs of chemistry that might indicate the presence of life.

Here are some links that explain further:


Mars News

This week NASA announced that it has discovered evidence that liquid water is flowing on Mars.  Not just in the past as previously announced, but now.

The existence of liquid water on the surface of Mars is rather unexpected. To understand why, look at the following phase diagram chart, showing the states of water as a function of pressure (vertical axis) and temperature (horizontal axis):


On the surface of the Earth, we live at 1 atm. This means that water exists as a solid (“ice”) at a temperature below 0 degrees Celsius, as a liquid (“water”) between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius, and as a gas (“water vapor”) above 100 degrees Celsius. You can see this in the diagram above by following the horizontal dotted line from left to right at P = 1 atm.

Let’s look at Mars.  The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is about 0.006 atm. Look at the chart above.  At an atmospheric pressure of 0.006 atm, liquid water is just on the knife-edge of being able to exist at all. If the pressure were slightly lower than 0.006 atm, water would transition directly from a solid to a gas with an increase in temperature. (An example with which you’re familiar on Earth is carbon dioxide, which transitions directly from a solid  we call “dry ice” to a gas at 1 atm). Slightly higher, liquid water could exist, but only in a very narrow band of temperatures.

Atmospheric pressure and temperatures make the existence of liquid water on Mars an extreme challenge.  At the very least, the above phase diagram shows why finding liquid water on the surface of Mars is very surprising.  Perhaps minerals and salts dissolved in the water shift the phase diagram enough to permit liquid water to exist under a broader range of temperatures. It is certainly worth exploring further, in person.

Speaking of exploring in person, Eric Berger (@chronsciguy) of the Houston Chronicle wrote an article about why it is so hard to get to Mars. Definitely worth reading.

Mars News

August Volatility in the US Stock Market


Driving home the other day, I heard a segment on NPR that was discussing the recent market downturn and its possible causes. Interestingly enough, one of the guests during the segment asserted the following:

“Firstly, the markets are very thin right now because it is August and you have a lot of the seasoned traders away on vacation. You’ve got less volume than anywhere in the markets. And so there’s a long tradition of people overreacting during this vacation season.”

When pressed on this point, the guest analyst didn’t waiver:

“But the reality is that, you know, many of the most seasoned and senior traders tend to go on vacation this time of year. And yes, we can all remain in contact with our iPhones and our iPads and whatever else while we’re on the beaches. But traditionally, you have had a lot of pretty wild market movements in the month of August historically.”

The question of volatility seems to be an easy point to test. First, some assumptions:

  • A market index such as the S&P 500 is an indicator of the broader market performance.
  • Volatility is high if the closing price on a given day is markedly different (up or down) than the closing price on the day prior.
  • A given month is more volatile if it has more high-volatility days than another month.

Based on the assertion that August volatility is caused by junior traders, I infer that with senior traders in charge, there should be less volatility. Otherwise, I claim that the causal relationship between volatility and the seniority of the traders is not provable.

To test the theory, I downloaded the S&P 500 closing prices for the last 10 years and performed some calculations. First, for each day I calculated the change in closing price, and percentage change in closing price. Here is an example:


S&P 500 Closing Price

Change from Previous Day
C(i) = P(i)-P(i-1)

Percentage Change from Previous Day
R(i) = C(i)/P(i-1)



















The variations in the percentage change in closing price, calculated by finding the standard deviation, will provide the measure of market volatility in accordance with the assumptions above.

Using the S&P 500 closing prices for the last 10 years, performing the above calculations, segregating the data into 12 separate monthly bins, and calculating the standard deviations for each monthly bin yields the following:

 Month Standard Deviation Rank
Jan 0.0114 7
Feb 0.0109 8
Mar 0.0128 5
Apr 0.0096 12
May 0.0105 10
Jun 0.0109 9
Jul 0.0100 11
Aug 0.0136 4
Sep 0.0141 3
Oct 0.0191 1
Nov 0.0168 2
Dec 0.0122 6

Based on the daily variations in the S&P 500 closing prices over the last 10 years, it is true that August is one of the more volatile months. However, the variations in August are exceeded by the Fall months – September (#3), November (#2), and October (#1). Therefore, if the “junior varsity” traders being in charge cause volatility in August, what is the explanation for the even higher volatility in the Fall months?

Perhaps the guest analyst had some other measure of volatility in mind – inter-day swings in prices, daily trading volume, or something else I haven’t considered. Based on the volatility in daily closing prices, however, August is in the top half of volatile months, but isn’t as volatile as the Fall months. Therefore, I question the association of August volatility with junior traders. Based on data over the last 10 years, it doesn’t seem to be a viable explanation based on the assumptions above.


Is The Stock Market Volatility A Correction Or A Full-Blown Crisis? August 25, 2015

S&P 500 Historical Data, last updated 2015-08-26 6:51 PM CDT

Image via

August Volatility in the US Stock Market