Friday, June 7, 2013

That Was Then, This Is Now

January 16, 2013 ... NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow announce that a demonstration version of the Bigelow inflatable habitat will be attached to the International Space Station in 2015. Image source: NASA.

Is NASA obsolete?

That's a question that Congress should ponder as it writes a new authorization act this year for the space agency.

NASA was created in 1958 by the National Aeronautics and Space Act. You can read the original here, and compare it with today's amended version here.

The 1958 Act defines NASA's purpose and basic functionality. But it doesn't cover specific missions, and how much money will be available to pay for them.

That comes from an authorization act. Congress passes a NASA authorization act every two or three years to provide the agency with general spending guidelines and priorities in the near future. The most recent authorization act was passed in 2010; you can read it here.

As with most things congressional these days, the authorization act doesn't mean a lot. The U.S. Constitution separates authorization (what you do) and appropriation (giving you the money to do it). Congress may have authorized a particular number, but the President's annual budget proposal can ask for less or more. Congress can (and often does) ignore the President, giving less or more based on whim.

NASA's commercial crew program is an example.

Today's commercial crew program, which has it origins in the Bush Administration, was authorized $312 million for Fiscal Year 2011, $500 million for FY12, and $500 million for FY13.

That wasn't enough to “speed the development of the Shuttle's successor,” as Barack Obama pledged when he campaigned in Titusville in August 2008, so the administration asked for more.

In its February 2010 NASA budget proposal for FY11, the administration asked for $500 million in FY11, and projected $1.4 billion in FY12 and $1.4 billion in FY13. Congress gave NASA $307.4 million for FY11, 98% of what was authorized, and 61% of what the administration requested.

In its February 2011 budget proposal for FY12, the administration asked for $850 million in FY12 and projected $850 million in FY13. Congress gave NASA $406 million, 81% of what was authorized and 48% of what the administration requested.

In its February 2012 budget proposal for FY13, the administration asked for $829.7 million in FY13. Congress gave NASA $525 million, 105% of what was authorized and 63% of what the administration requested.

See the pattern?

And this doesn't include sequestration.

Because Congress has failed to adequately fund commercial crew, NASA announced in April that it had signed an agreement to extend U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz for International Space Station access to June 2017, potentially paying Russia another $424 million.

NASA officials have told Congress time and again in hearings that underfunding only sends money to Russia. Congress expresses outrage ... and then underfunds NASA again.

Is this any way to run a space agency?

Members of Congress, meanwhile, dream of a return to the days of Apollo. Or Apollo on steroids.

Click the arrow to watch the May 21, 2013 House hearing, “Next Steps in Human Exploration to Mars and Beyond.”

An example is the May 21, 2013 House space subcommittee hearing titled, “Next Steps in Human Exploration to Mars and Beyond.” With the exception of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), nobody was interested in talking about the cost, or how to pay for it. In current dollars, the Apollo program cost about $150 billion. A Mars mission would seem to cost at least that much, if a strictly governmental effort.

Congress seems interested mostly in providing just enough funding to keep employed those who work for NASA in their districts and states, and to direct contracts to aerospace companies that donate to their re-election campaigns. An example is the Space Launch System, derided as the Senate Launch System by its critics.

So long as human spaceflight relies upon Congress for vision and funding, it's increasingly obvious that humanity will never go again beyond Earth orbit.

Which is why we should pose the question, “is NASA obsolete?”

I would answer that it's not NASA that's obsolete, but what it became in the 1960s after President John F. Kennedy's Moon program was approved by Congress.

Let's return to NASA's original charter in 1958.

NASA was intended to be an aerospace research and development agency. Nothing in the 1958 NASA act requires it to launch people into space, to explore other worlds or even to own its rockets.

Remember the context of the times. This was in the months after Sputnik.

No one paying attention should have been surprised by Sputnik. Both the United States and the Soviet Union said they would participate in the International Geophysical Year by launching the world's first artificial satellites. It was only after the U.S. panicked that the U.S.S.R. ratcheted up the propaganda.

NASA was born out of the aftermath of Sputnik, a perception that U.S. technology was inferior to that of the Soviet Union. The perception was entirely wrong — President Dwight Eisenhower knew that, but couldn't present the evidence because it would reveal certain U.S. intelligence gathering abilities. Democrats in Congress, in particular Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, pressed their advantage by holding hearings. Ambitious senator John F. Kennedy gave a speech on August 14, 1958 claiming that a “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

The concern boiled down to the Soviet Union having an operational intercontinental ballistic missile while the U.S. Atlas was still in development — never mind that the Soviet R-7 couldn't hit a target. Nonetheless, the perception was largely behind the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958. NASA was created by combining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) with various space research agencies from the Defense Department.

Viewed in its historical context, we understand that NASA was an attempt to close the perceived “gap” by concentrating aerospace R&D in one agency, rather than across a number of civilian and military agencies.

Section 102(c) of the Act states that “The aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives.” The phrase “contribute materially to one or more” is very different from suggesting that NASA create Starfleet. The “one or more” activities are fairly vague, but as a whole are viewed as generally suggesting that NASA help the U.S. improve its aerospace technology.

Keith Glennan, NASA's first administrator, addresses employees transferred from NACA.

It's only when President Kennedy on May 25, 1961, gave his famous speech “On Urgent National Needs” that NASA began to morph into the agency we know today. When he proposed that NASA place a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s, no one seemed to question what came thereafter, or what should be done with all the infrastructure created to accomplish it. Kennedy never intended to create Starfleet, only to show the world that U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union. But it is that legacy that has haunted NASA for a half-century.

Those who witnessed Apollo as children of the 1960s are now in Congress, and for the most part they seem to think that the Kennedy-era paradigm is what NASA should always be. They do not understand that the 1960s were an anomaly of history that won't happen again. The Soviet Union is gone, and its successor republic has been our partner in space for over twenty years. The perceived threat of an external enemy capable of destroying the U.S. with ICBMs no longer exists, so there is no incentive for Congress to properly fund an aerospace R&D agency, much less Starfleet.

I think NASA needs to go back to what it was intended to be upon its founding in 1958.

A fascinating article posted May 30 on suggests the Obama administration may be thinking along the same lines.

The article is about the recent agreement between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace to explore the possibility of a private sector lunar human spaceflight initiative. Bigelow Aerospace would act as a general contractor, recruiting other “NewSpace” companies such as SpaceX and Golden Spike to provide the elements for sending a client nation's crew to the Moon.

In the article are quotes from NASA associate administrator William Gerstenmaier. One passage is particularly interesting, because it suggests that in the future the relationship between NASA and the private sector would reverse. Instead of NASA hiring a company to build its launch and crew vehicles, the company would hire NASA to develop the technology for them.

Listen to the May 23, 2013 press conference with Bob Bigelow and William Gerstenmaier.

“For us in NASA, we typically do a lot of design reference mission analysis. We do a lot of concept work. We do a lot of things, and then we typically ask industry how they can participate or be part of that activity.

“We thought that this time, instead of doing it the typical way, we would kind of turn that around a little bit. We would ask the industry first through this Space Act Agreement what they are interested in; (where) they see interest in doing exploration throughout the solar system; where they see human presence that makes sense; where they see potential commercial markets.”

It's a stunning notion, one that harkens back to NASA's original purpose when created in 1958.

As I wrote on May 30, by the end of the decade we could see a commercial lunar enterprise at Kennedy Space Center. NASA's role? To aide with technological development and provide the launch facilities. NASA would be the Jiminy Cricket to the private sector Pinocchio — and compensated for its efforts.

If you want an historical precedent, go no farther than Bigelow Aerospace.

In the 1990s, NASA was working on an inflatable habitat called TransHab. But in 2000, Congress forbade NASA from conducting any further research into inflatable habitat technology.

Bob Bigelow came to the rescue. Bigelow Aerospace licensed the TransHab technology from NASA and developed it into two test modules launched into space in 2006 and 2007. They remain in space to this day.

In January, it was announced that a Bigelow demonstration module will be sent to the International Space Station in 2015. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will launch folded up inside a SpaceX Dragon's cargo trunk, then be attached to a docking port for two years to demonstrate the technology.

Click the arrow to watch a computer animation of the BEAM attached to the ISS in 2015. Video source: NASA.

The habitat concept, conceived by NASA, might be used by the agency one day as a habitat module for a long-duration spaceflight to Mars, to an asteroid, or as a lunar colony. Bob Bigelow envisions his habitats as a lunar colony for the notional commercial lunar program.

Bigelow and his partners would cater to nations and private interests who want to purchase lunar missions. Although the customers may be international, the partners would be uniquely American. NASA would be there to test and certify the technology, providing the expertise and the milestones for certification, just as it has with commercial crew and cargo before that.

So now the question becomes ... How do we as space advocates convince Congress to let go of their Apollo fantasies and invest in American enterprise to become the world's predominant commercial space power?

No, NASA is not obsolete. But Congress is.


  1. Stephen you rock dude, you put the nail right where is belongs in a fiscal and operational sense with NASA, spectacular, you got some real meat in with potatoes on this one. Great work, as you do well with the life you say you don’t have. Excellent read as context was well defined and a store of information, I have added the link to my FSDC Favorite list. Nice to spot light Lori. Good succinct job on Laing out the NASA budget Proposal for FY11, 12 and 13 as it puts the issue in perspective. And yeah, underfunding where do you begin? Though you are right, “Starfleet it’s not,” no that will be something else. It was well worth your time sitting down and doing a write up about this issue as it was definitely worth my time to read it…Randy Pruitt

  2. Well, those declining budgets and rightward-moving timelines for NASA projects probably have some meaning, y'know? I think Congress and the White House gave up on "Apollo fantasies" a long time ago, maybe as far back as 1969, certainly since 1986. What we've got left is a propaganda program (call it "soft power". if that makes you happier). Space Flight Is The FUTURE! And America LEADS! And that works reasonably well to burnish our image and show the people of the world we've got more on our minds than downloading porn and waterboarding prisoners.

    So our program isn't getting us any closer to a really snazzy Star Trek-like future? Neither is anybody elses; space program. We've had bragging rights since Apollo XI and that's good enough.

    Is private enterprise going to change things? Don't hold your breath. So we've got Golden Spike and Planetary Resources and SpaceX and Bigelow and maybe in ten or twenty years they'll be profitable without federal programs to feast on -- we can hope! But it isn't at all obvious that making profits alone leads to any sort of wonderful human future in space. We've been putting comsats and landsats and weather satellites and nifty scientific spacecraft into space for fifty years now, and it hasn't got us one day closer to founding Luna City.

    It strikes me Congress is basically happy with this, despite some occasional theatrics. And the White House is happy, and the State Dept, and OMB, and for all I know the Farm Bureau. And just about all the voters, those who pay attention. Change is risky, after all; it can be dangerous, it certainly might be expensive, and American government is troublesome enough already -- think it would be like if Republicans and Democrats and those interfering no-it-alls in the UN started arguing about spending billions of dollars on lunar colonies and getting the voters all upset!

    Does this situation change, ever? Likely. Technological progress doesn't stop, even for those who don't want to pay for it, and I expect income levels around the world will rise considerably during this century. Somebody -- China, or India, or Brazil, or maybe even Russia -- will eventually find the money and resolve to push past the US. But I wouldn't count on it happening soon, either.

    My 2 cents.