Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Vision Thing

Click the arrow to watch NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver address NewSpace 2013 on July 26, 2013.

Two columns this week lamented the supposed lack of space visionaries.

In his Sunday weekly space column, Florida Today journalist John Kelly wrote that “NASA needs some of what Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson bring to the table: gutsy, all-in leadership.”

NASA needs a leader who will say what he or she thinks, do what is right, and not worry about squishing toes . . .

They need a bigger-than-life, bold and courageous thinker who is willing to stop trying to “get by” with stagnant budgets and keeping a bunch of outmoded legacy programs on life support.

NASA needs someone who starts the game over. It needs someone who can take the billions the space agency gets, set audacious goals and priorities, and build a team of leaders to get after it.

Author Edward Hujsak published a similar column Monday, labelling NASA astronauts a bunch of hitchhikers, which he claims is an “embarrassment.”

The U.S. manned space program has lost both vitality and direction. It needs a new compass. The administrators of human activity in space deserve criticism, even a measure of excoriation for poor performance. We can do better.

In my opinion, both columnists miss the point, although John is closer to what I think is the answer.

For the last half-century, our cultural fantasy is that one day President John F. Kennedy strode down to the floor of Congress and, feeling his Kennedyesque vigor, declared we would put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. If only someone would do that again, the 535 members of Congress would magically arise as one and unanimously vote to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on collecting more Moon rocks.

As with many myths, the truth was lost somewhere along the way.

As I wrote on July 29, NASA was never intended to be Starfleet.

NASA was created in 1958 as a political overreaction to a perceived military threat from the Soviet Union. The Republican Eisenhower administration was in the White House, but the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. When the Soviets launched the first Sputniks in late 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year, it was an easy opportunity for the Democrats to ratchet up the political hysteria. Among those were Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) and ambitious young Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA).

Kennedy alleged that a “missile gap” existed, defined as the Soviets being able to lift heavier payloads than the United States. The fact of the matter was that the U.S. had a significant scientific and military advantage, but the Eisenhower administration couldn't reveal all in public as it would give away military secrets. Kennedy repeated the claim throughout the 1960 presidential election.

Once in office, he was briefed by military personnel who told him he was totally wrong, but of course he wouldn't admit that publicly.

On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, and once again the hysteria arose. Five days later, the Bay of Bigs invasion began, which failed miserably. It was Sputnik all over again.

Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961. With a success fresh in the public's mind, Kennedy had the political opportunity to challenge the Soviets to a space race. Destination: Moon.

The definitive work on this period is John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon by John M. Logsdon. I reviewed his book in March 2011.

The legendary speech to Congress was actually a rather boring speech listing a number of projects he proposed to show American might in the face of Soviet triumphs, as well as a stimulus for a mild recession. The famous Moon passage was only a few paragraphs near the end of the speech.

The more lyrical “Not because it is easy, but because it is hard” speech was at Rice University on September 12, 1962. The two speeches are often confused, but they were at different times of political tension. By September 1962, the immediate embarrassment had receded, and Kennedy was having second thoughts about the Moon program as its budget became, well, astronomical. Rice also happened to be in the district of Rep. Albert Thomas (D-TX), who chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA's budget. I have to wonder how much influence Thomas' re-election campaign might have had on Kennedy's presence in Houston, and if they felt it was necessary for Kennedy to justify the expense. We'll never know.

Click the arrow to watch President John F. Kennedy address the United Nations on September 20, 1963.

One year and eight days later, Kennedy addressed the United Nations to propose that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. combine their space programs. What had changed in the last year? Not just the bloated NASA budget, but also both nations had survived the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As Logsdon wrote in his book, Kennedy commissioned three different reviews in 1963 questioning whether the Moon program was worth the cost. The third review was under way when he addressed the U.N. — and was delivered to the White House a week after his assassination.

It would have been politically impossible for Johnson, elevated to President, to have pulled the plug on Kennedy's iconic propaganda program. So it continued, although the report reminded everyone Apollo was primarily for prestige, not for the sake of exploration or any significant scientific research.

So here we are fifty years later, with an Apollo-era bureaucracy of space centers scattered across the nation, littered with Apollo-era infrastructure, and NASA unable to do anything about it because those centers are represented by members of Congress who zealously protect their pork.

I respectfully disagree with John Kelly's assumption that anyone appointed to lead NASA can change Congress' porking ways. The NASA Administrator is selected by the President, but reviewed and approved by Congress. I can't imagine Congress giving the okay to an administrator who says centers have to close and money will be transferred from their districts.

To further the point, earlier this year members of Congress proposed a bill transferring control of NASA from the President to Congress. Among them were Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), representing districts with space centers. The bill failed in the last session and looks doomed for this one too, but it demonstrates a total disinterest within Congress to tolerate “the vision thing,” a phrase reportedly coined by George H.W. Bush in 1987.

In his column, John Kelly lamented the pending departure of NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. Kelly wrote, “She was one of the people trying to break NASA’s mold, change it from within, and champion innovative projects such as the commercial cargo and crew ventures.”

But the reason for the commercial programs was specifically to liberate NASA from the very problem that has plagued it for a half-century.

“NewSpace,” as it's come to be known, didn't begin with Garver or the Obama administration. It began with the George W. Bush administration in 2004, in the wake of the Columbia accident.

As I wrote on March 29, the Aldridge Commission report in June 2004 called for the creation of a “robust space industry” to liberate space from government.

The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. The space industry will become a national treasure.

The report called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”

The commission noted that “It is the stated policy of the act creating and enabling NASA that it encourage and nurture private sector space.”

Almost ten years later, the first commercial cargo vehicle is flying. The SpaceX Dragon, the first 21st Century spacecraft and a robotic one at that, has been to the ISS three times, with a fourth visit scheduled in December. A second vehicle, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, is scheduled for its demonstration flight in September.

As I wrote on August 9, three commercial crew vehicles are on the verge of human test flights. NASA astronauts have sat in all three vehicles for fit checks or simulation runs. Unless Congress cuts the program's funding yet again, test flights with people may be within the next two years.

Click the arrow to watch the NASA fit check of the Boeing CST-100 spacecraft.

So that's five brand new American spacecraft, three capable of carrying people, all developed within about ten years. Never has the U.S. space program in its half-century developed so many spacecraft with so few dollars. And that doesn't include Bigelow Aerospace, developing a private space station in partnership with SpaceX and Boeing. Bigelow recently signed an agreement with NASA that could lead to commercial lunar colonies and commercial operation of the ISS.

Edward Hujsak seems to be totally unaware of any of this.

Now the nation with the most muscle in space endeavors finds itself in the hitchhiker’s position, forced to rely on another country to lift its astronauts into orbit. Granted, the U.S. ponies up $70 million a seat, but that only heightens the embarrassment. Not only that, but it admits to a willingness to accept a transport method that has not advanced since the 1960s — sealing astronauts inside a vessel and hoping for the best, the same as inanimate cargo. Little can now be said in admiration of NASA regarding its current plans to adopt the same methods in the future.

Does NewSpace sound like “The U.S. manned space program has lost both vitality and direction,” as Hujsak wrote?

The vision, the vitality and direction were on display for all to see last month at the NewSpace 2013 conference in the Silicon Valley. It was organized by the Space Frontier Foundation. According to their web site:

We are transforming space from a government-owned bureaucratic program into a dynamic and inclusive frontier open to people. We are determined to convert the image held by many young people that the future will be worse than the present, and we reject the idea that the world’s greatest moments are in its past.

Their keynote speaker was Lori Garver, who announced two weeks later that she would leave NASA in early September for a management position with the Air Line Pilots Association.

Only Lori can tell us if this was intended to be her farewell speech, but she was unusually blunt for a government agency executive who has to beg Congress for scraps.

So what's the challenge? It's still gonna be a little too much about the pork. We definitely know that we have self-interested constituencies in everything we do. It's government dollars, it's what it's about.

That's not going to change, and the sooner space advocates accept it then the better for all concerned.

Lori Garver is the only space advocate I can think of who made the transition from activism (as the second executive director of the National Space Society) to a leadership position in NASA. She was admired by some (including me) and loathed by others, in particular those with a vested interest in OldSpace.

In retrospect, it's astonishing that she was able to take a nearly forgotten Bush-era program and prime it into a wave of next-generation space technology that will liberate space from the clutches of Congress. We're not quite there, as some in Congress still scheme to defund commercial crew, but the metaphorical genie is out of the bottle and NewSpace's triumph is inevitable.

Within the next year or two, Virgin Galactic should achieve powered suborbital space flight and begin commercial space tourism. That historic first flight will signal the death of OldSpace. No longer will you have to be a government employee to go into space.

America's space program is not NASA. America's space program is the NewSpace crowd, guided and sheparded by an agency born in 1958 to be an aerospace research and development agency.

The visionaries are all around us. We just need to let NASA return to being NASA.

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