Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Trouble With NASA

I understand that NASA reported that there's new evidence of water on Mars. I'm here to report that we still don't have any evidence of affordable gasoline in Michigan. ~ David Bonior

It was inevitable that reality would set in with respect to the US space program. The reader may recall when George W. Bush, trying to distract everyone's attention from the various disasters of his administration (including that lack of affordable gasoline), came up with his "plan" for space exploration. The "plan" called for a return to the moon and then a mission to Mars, all conveniently to occur after he was out of office. To perform all these wonderful things, NASA was to get more money. Also, the shuttle and the ISS were to be scrapped.

One would think that there would have been some sort of outcry about shutting down a space station that would take 20-plus years to build after just 5 years of useful life, but this bit of twisted logic seemed to escape the notice of most people. Some did wonder how exactly the ISS would be supplied without a shuttle, especially given that NASA didn't have anything that would be ready in time.

Oh, there was the nonsense about "commercial" space flight picking up the slack. "Commercial", of course, means private companies taking taxpayer money without NASA oversight, which in turn means getting not a damn thing for our money. Events so far have shown that so called "commercial" space ventures beyond Proton and Arianne (both funded by various governments) have been so much moon dust.

None of this would have mattered, of course, because if the space station couldn't be supplied, it would just be brought down a couple of years sooner.

I've never thought much of the ISS because it's never seemed to have a purpose, other than to suck up money that could have been used for space science and exploration. To turn around and trash the thing, though, is a complete travesty. I mean, as long as it's there, let's get something out of it.

Now a Presidential committee has come along and admitted what we all knew to begin with, that the Bush "plan" was a joke all along.

The trouble is that NASA has been a bit of joke for a long time now. Take a look at this little slide show of abandoned NASA projects. There's a theme that runs through all of them. Cost overruns and various changes of mind caused most of them to have their funding yanked.

Now part of the problem has always been that when Presidents and Congress is looking to pretend to worry about spending the first thing they cut, even before education and human services, is NASA's budget. After the heyday of space exploration that took us to the moon in the first place, NASA has watched one President after the other promise all sorts of things while whacking their funding.

But, that doesn't really explain why NASA can't stick to a budget once they start on a project. The problem here is more complex, just as it is in business. Part of the problem in developing any project is trying to think of everything that you need to consider. In the euphoria of a new objective, most people, whether corporate or government, will understate the costs that will ultimately be incurred. NASA, though, has made cost overruns standard practice.

Partly, this is because the head of NASA is an appointed official. Presidents come in, put their genius into the director's seat. The new director, either under orders from the boss or just because he can, proceeds to shuffle positions, change procedures, revisit all current projects, and redoes all the objectives. As a result, projects that were killed a few years ago are suddenly resurrected while ongoing projects are dumped, only to be reanimated when the next guy comes in.

In the unlikely event a project actually survives the change at the top, the contractors (like Lockheed) will think up all sorts of little goodies that ought to be added, or the project managers start changing the mission ("Y'know as long as we're out there we might as well ..."). As a result, costs keep going up.

The problem is that the US still has no national science, technology, or exploration policies. Bush's flight of fancy about going to Mars had no rhyme or reason, no stated goal. When Kennedy dictated that we would go to the moon, it was part of a program to improve US science and engineering education (begun by Eisenhower, when the Soviets embarrassed the crap out of the US). But even Kennedy, and later Lyndon Johnson, never seemed to have an idea of what would follow. That made it very easy for Nixon just to call the whole thing off.

President Obama's committee has shown we don't know what we're doing or why. Now the challenge to come up with a real plan.

You'll excuse me if I don't hold my breath waiting for one.

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