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