Friday, December 7, 2012

Lost in Space

The National Academies on December 5 released the report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus. The report was mandated by Congress; in late 2011 NASA was directed to conduct a “comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management.”

In my opinion, the report was mandated by Congress in a fit of pique over the Obama administration's proposing the cancellation of the boondoggle Constellation program. Members of Congress were angry that a program that protected jobs in their districts and states was proposed for cancellation. Congress ultimately agreed to cancel Constellation, but replaced it with the Space Launch System, which continues to protect those jobs although Congress has given it no mission or destination. Critics have dubbed it the Senate Launch System.

These members of Congress blamed the Administration for what they claimed was a lack of direction from the administration for NASA, and ordered the report.

April 15, 2010 — President Barack Obama at Kennedy Space Center proposes a new course for NASA. Click the arrow to watch the video.

The President articulated a specific direction for NASA in April 2010, in a speech he delivered at Kennedy Space Center. But it was not a direction Congress wanted to hear, so for the most part it was largely ignored.

Instead the taxpayers funded yet another report which will be delivered to the doorstep of Congress — and ignored.

The report hints at Congress' failure to act. On Page 3, for example, under TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT is this passage:

Because of the unique nature of most of its missions, NASA has had a number of very specific technological requirements in areas ranging from expendable and reusable launch vehicles to deep-space propulsion systems to radiation protection for astronauts, and much more. The recently established Space Technology Program has carried out a roadmapping and priority-setting strategic planning process for such technologies, assisted by the NRC, but the program is yet to be funded at the levels requested by the President’s budget. (Emphasis added.)

In the next section, under BUDGETS AND BALANCE, it states:

Numerous times the agency initiated new programs with the expectation that budgets would increase to support them (a basic requirement for optimizing any development program’s budget), only to have no increases emerge. Taken in aggregate, this situation has been wasteful and inefficient. Even leaving aside the funding requirements for large procurements, it is tempting to assume that if NASA officials knew to expect a flat budget they could plan better, but in several recent cases they were told (even required) to expect funding that never ultimately emerged. (Emphasis added.)

This failure of Congress to provide adequate funding is nothing new.

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush gave his Vision for Space Exploration speech in which he proposed what came to be known as the Constellation program.

Two weeks later, on January 28, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Science Committee to present the details to Congress.

O'Keefe presented the funding request, summed up in what came to be known as the Vision Sand Chart.

The Vision Sand Chart. Click the image to see a larger version.

Click here to view O'Keefe's entire budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2005, which includes the chart.

The proposal showed a very small increase in funding for NASA over the next five years to pay for Constellation. In the next decade, the proposal anticipated shifting funding for most of NASA's other programs to pay for Constellation. In particular, it envisioned defunding the International Space Station by mid-decade to pay for Constellation — even though Constellation's Ares-I was being built to go there. Ares-I was being built to go to a destination that would not exist by the time it was ready for flight.

In their opening remarks, both committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) and member Bill Nelson (D-FL) called out the funding problems in the proposal.

McCain said:

I'm very curious to hear how Administrator O'Keefe thinks we can implement the President's proposal with the very limited resources that have been proposed. Two days go, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the deficit in Fiscal Year 2004 would reach $477 billion. It's been reported that the President's new proposal could cost between $170 billion and $600 billion. Needless to say, the $12 billion that the Adminstration has suggested be spent over the next five years falls far far short of what might actually be required to return to the Moon and reach for Mars and beyond.

McCain said, "A vision without a strategy is just an illusion."

Nelson commented:

Space flight, you can't do it on the cheap. I just don't think that a billion dollar increase over five years, that's $200 million a year, is going to do it. I would love for you to explain on the reprogramming of the $11 billion over that five years how you can do that.

The Senate Science Committee hearing on January 28, 2004. Click the arrow to watch the video.

Congress knew VSE would cost a lot more than being requested — but they approved it anyway.

The National Academies' report recommends on Page 5:

NASA’s new strategic plan, future budget proposals prepared by the administration, and future NASA authorization and appropriation acts passed by Congress should include actions that will eliminate the current mismatch between NASA’s budget and its portfolio of programs, facilities, and staff, while establishing and maintaining a sustainable distribution of resources among human spaceflight, Earth and space science, and aeronautics, through some combination of the kinds of options identified above by the committee. The strategic plan should also address the rationale for resource allocation among the strategic goals in the plan.

Good luck with that.

Appendix C of the report lists seventeen other reports submitted between 1986 and 2010 “concerning NASA's strategic direction.” It would appear that Congress gave those little thought as well.

In August, NASA submitted another report mandated by Congress, this one to suggest potential uses for the Space Launch System. Titled “NASA Exploration Destinations, Goals, and International Collaboration”, this one was ordered in early 2012, once again trying to shift the blame for NASA's perceived drift to the White House:

The conferees believe that NASA needs to better articulate a set of specific, scientifically meritorious exploration goals to focus its program and provide a common vision for future achievements. Consequently, the conferees direct NASA to develop and report to the Committees on Appropriations a set of science-based exploration goals; a target destination or destinations that will enable the achievement of those goals; a schedule for the proposed attainment of these goals; and a plan for any proposed collaboration with international partners. Proposed international collaboration should enhance NASA’s exploration plans rather than replace capabilities NASA is developing with current funds. This report shall be submitted no later than 180 days after the enactment of this Act.”

To date, Congress has failed to act on this one too.

So long as the pork keeps flowing to the states and districts of certain members of Congress, that's all they care about.

UPDATE December 8, 2012MSNBC reporter Erin Delmore has comments by spaceflight operations specialist James Oberg about the National Academies report.

“When you look at NASA’s program today, it’s not nearly as tightly focused” as it was during the Space Race, Oberg explained. “I think that’s a good thing, though, because we’ve gotten to a broader area of capabilities. So when they refer to some problems they see at NASA, to me those are problems not of aging, but of maturing.”

But operating on many fronts has made it harder “to keep the political will focused,” Oberg conceded. NASA’s funding is appropriated by Congress, and with fights over the federal budget, increasing the agency’s funds is probably a political nonstarter.

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