Friday, May 14, 2010

Charter Flights

The official seal of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA's predecessor. Note the depiction of the Wright Brothers' first flight.

The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.

So begins the National Aeronautics and Space Act, first enacted by the United States in 1958 and amended several times since then.

It's a shame more members of Congress apparently haven't read NASA's charter, because if they did they'd find that NASA has strayed far from its mission as defined in law.

NASA was the successor to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), whose mission was to "direct and conduct research and experimentation in aeronautics, with a view to their practical solution."

NACA was fine for more than 40 years, until the Soviet Union launched Sputnik on October 1, 1957. Congress passed the Act and it was signed by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958.

NASA was to be a civilian space agency. The military had run space-related matters before then but its bureaucracy was considered too hidebound to compete with the Russians in space.

The Act has been amended several times since 1958, most notably in 1984 during the Reagan administration. Section 102(c) states:

The Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (as established by title II of this Act) seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.

Prior to this amendment, the Act "provided that both employee inventions as well as private contractor innovations brought about through space travel would be subject to government ownership," according to a Wikipedia entry. "By making the government the exclusive provider of space transport, the act effectively discouraged the private development of space travel."

That changed with the 1984 amendment, but to this day the private sector still finds government obstacles. Florida Today reports that the Space X Falcon 9 test launch is being delayed by the Air Force which is making SpaceX use antiquated technology from government contractors for its launch termination system.

President Obama's proposed FY 2011 NASA budget returns NASA to its original intent, which was to foster aerospace technological advancement, not to run a space taxi service.

Nothing in the Act requires NASA to own its rockets, to fly humans, to send missions to the Moon and Mars. There's nothing about specifying destinations and timelines, as Obama's critics have demanded.

Section 102(d) defines NASA's missions:

(d) 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:
(1) The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
(2) The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
(3) The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space;
(4) The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;
(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
(6) The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
(7) Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof;
(8) The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment; and
(9) The preservation of the United States preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development related to associated manufacturing processes.

Note the use of the phrase "contribute materially." It was envisioned that NASA would assist other government agencies, military and civilian, in aeronautics and space research, as well as the private sector. There's no requirement for NASA to be in charge. Also note the qualifier "one or more of the following objectives," meaning that NASA doesn't have to do them all.

As noted, there's no requirement for NASA to fly humans. The closest is paragraph (3), which states that NASA should contribute materially to "the development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space." A "living organism" could be bacteria, insects, dogs, chimpanzees. Keep in mind that this charter was written in the months after the Soviet Union launched into space Laika, a stray dog used to test the survival of life forms in space. The phrase "living organisms" would seem to imply that Congress foresaw the use of animals such as Ham the chimpanzee in January 1961.

Nothing in the Act requires NASA to own rockets. In fact, Section 203(c)(3) authorizes NASA to "acquire (by purchase, lease, condemnation, or otherwise) ... aeronautical and space vehicles ..." The Act allows NASA to buy or lease a commercial vehicle. But they don't have to build it themselves.

So if it isn't a top priority for NASA to fly humans to the Moon, Mars or anywhere else, how is it that NASA lost its way?

Several contributing factors can be cited, most of which occurred back in the 1960s.

The first, of course, was the Soviets launching Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961, less than three months after President John F. Kennedy took office. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion was less than a week later.

Faced with those incidents and a recessionary economy, Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. As I wrote on February 27, the speech was essentially a list of various programs proposed to fight the recession and to show American resolve to fight the Soviets in the Cold War. Near the end of the speech, Kennedy proposed sending an astronaut to the Moon before the end of the 1960s. His sole justification was to show the world that American technology was better than that of the Soviet Union.

Contrary to legend, Kennedy was not a space visionary nor was he interested in human exploration of space. As I wrote on May 6, a recording of a late November 1962 conversation between Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb documents JFK saying, "I'm not that interested in space." Kennedy rebuffed Webb's proposals for expanding the space program, making it clear his sole objective was to show that American technology was better than the Soviets'.

Kennedy was assassinated a year later, and the Moon mission became a national obsession to honor the slain President's memory.

Another significant cause for NASA losing its focus is the space center system. There was no compelling scientific reason to locate space centers in places like Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Ohio, etc. The reasons were largely political.

Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson (assigned to supervise NASA) wanted to assure Congressional funding for the space program, so centers were established in politically key states. Houston's Manned Spacecraft Center, which we know now as Johnson Space Center, was built in LBJ's home state and also the district of the House subcommittee chairman who was responsible for oversight of NASA's budget. Kennedy's famous speech where he said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," was actually a September 1962 campaign speech in favor of that Congressman, Albert Thomas.

Although the space center system assured funding back in the 1960s, now it makes it almost impossible to streamline NASA by closing or consolidating space centers. Much of the squawking about Obama's budget proposal comes from Senators and Representatives of space center districts. They believe that cancelling Constellation will result in the loss of thousands of jobs in their districts, potentially costing them thousands of votes, and so NASA has become an expensive jobs program instead of promoting aerospace technological advancement.

President Obama's proposal would return NASA to its original purpose. It's not surprising that the space-industrial complex, which profits from its misdirection, is fighting to protect the status quo. One side is interested in compliance with the federal law. The other is interested in profit. Who wins remains to be seen.


  1. The military had run space-related matters before then but its bureaucracy was considered too hidebound to compete with the Russians in space.

    That wasn't why NASA was formed (though if it was, it would be pretty ironic, considering what a hide-bound bureaucracy it's become). It was formed because Eisenhower wanted to show that (unlike the USSR with its military program) our plans for space exploration were peaceful, not militaristic. It was also tied in with the International Geophysical Year in 1958.

  2. "The other is interested in profit."

    My warning radar goes up whenever I see an attempt to demonize a party as "only interested in profit." It's practically a hop, skip, and a jump from there to blaming the Joos. I'm not trying to twist your words to say you are in any way anti-Semitic, just pointing out that such ramblings are inherently meaningless and emotive, and can serve as a gateway to other, more insidiously thoughtless characterizations by others, even if the one who disturbs the rocks at the base of the hill, so to speak, never intended it to turn into an avalanche.

    The workers on the Constellation program deserve better than that. I know quite a few. They are thoughtful, hard-working people who were tasked with solving a great many very difficult technical problems to fulfill the mission requirements they were given. They have expended their sweat and tears in what they believe to be a noble quest, and they have made considerable progress. One can disagree with the direction in which space policy has advanced without demonizing the people involved. We have far too much of that kind of invective in our society. It is a lazy person's way to try to move debate in one's direction without actually addressing the specific issues.

  3. Stephen C. Smith is correct. The previous Anonymous is insane.

  4. The previous Anonymous cannot be taken seriously. Either he is not qualified to determine a person's sanity, or if he is, he no doubt makes a profit from treating the condition.

  5. I can admire the folks who worked so hard on Constellation AND support the decision to cancel it. Their anger shouldn't be directed at President Obama or Norm Augustine, but at Mike Griffin who was supposed to build Orion to be launched on an EELV.