Two Views on NASA Restructuring

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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