How could NASA’s New Vision Fail?

(Originally posted on February 11, 2010 on the Space Tweep Society blog)

Is this the new vision the solution?  Maybe.  The idea is to have NASA do the Research and Development (R&D) work to raise the TRLs from low to high so that they can be turned over the commercial industry.  While NASA has continued to do R&D all of these years, they have not been able to invest in everything they’d like to do because human spaceflight is expensive.  The concept is, make NASA an R&D institution and have the commercial industry pick up the flying into space portion.

My concern is this looks all grand on paper but at the end of the day where is the money and where is the implementation plan.  This plan is subject to the same perils that have doomed previous NASA programs and is at the whim of Congress and the next President(s).  What’s to keep Congress from cutting the funding (line by line remember) of specific NASA R&D departments?  What’s to keep the next President from coming in and saying this was a horrible plan and redirect the agency again?  Nothing.  Remember, there are no guarantees.

How could the new vision fail?

  • If Congress does not fully fund (for all the years to come) NASA to do the R&D work that is required to increase the TRL levels.
  • If the commercial industry does not invest significant amounts of their own money to develop human-rated launch vehicles and spacecraft.
  • If each NASA center does not secure funding to enable it to keep its contractor workforce
  • If NASA does not put together a procurement strategy such that the contracts can be in place to start spending the money right away.

Is this the right time? Is there ever truly a right time? While the budget is an increase in dollars over the FY2010 budget, it is less than what was submitted by NASA as a request for FY2011. Do you jeopardize thousands of jobs across the nation at a time when the nation is still recovering from a recession/depression?  Because, while the white house is saying this will create jobs, it will actually put NASA contractors out of work as their services are no longer required under the new vision.  The old contracts will be terminated and since this is a government agency, it will take time to start up new contracts.  How long will companies need to “hide” employees (cover costs) before those companies lay off or go out of business?  Which of the companies that exist purely to service NASA will go out of business because their services are no longer needed?  Just because a service was needed at one time, does that mean it should always be required?

Let me share with you the possible worst-case impact this could have to Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, TX.  JSC has been the home to three major programs, Shuttle, Station, and Constellation which includes their program offices, crew and flight controller training, and mission operations (mission control).  This is by no means all that takes place at JSC, but it is its major purpose for existing.  Since 2003, the plan has been to phase out the Shuttle program in 2010 and that is not changing.  So JSC has been planning the end of an era and working on transitioning some workers to other opportunities.  Lay-offs are in progress and will continue.  NASA Administrator, Bolden mentioned last week that crew training and mission control for the new spaceflight companies will not be done by NASA.  Astronauts don’t even have to be employed by NASA.  This is all still to be figured out as the new vision unfolds.  What we do know is that JSC just took a zinger under the new vision.  Shuttle retirement was already planned, but Constellation died unexpectedly and along with it the core competencies that JSC offers which is crew training and mission operations.  So, what will JSC do under this new vision?  What skill base can they maintain?  You are going to see the space centers battle it out for funding over this next year to keep their centers and the communities that surround them alive.

The Clear Lake area surrounding the Johnson Space Center exists because of NASA JSC.  If JSC is unable to think outside of the box and embrace this new vision then there will be a ripple down effect throughout the area affecting everyone.

So what does this mean to you?  It means everyone needs to do their part to make sure that the new vision is a success, regardless of your relationship to space exploration.  Do what it takes because failure only hurts our nation and our children’s future.

*Comments have been ported over.

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13 responses to “How could NASA’s New Vision Fail?

  1. I think the new vision is great, subject to raising TRLs meaning all the flying and testing that’s implied.

    Of course, it’s all got to be open — subject only to proper ITAR safety (not the vague “ITAR therefore closed”) to satisfy the need.

    This new vision is a more traditional NACA/NASA mode. It is a strong complement to building the space economy that’s necessary to maintaining the national technology workforce independent of politics, and financial speculators.

    As an exo-space-tweep, my own pain is all of the technology we’ve paid for that’s locked up behind closed doors for all the wrong reasons.

    Decently executed, the new vision would lay down the ground work toward growing everything NASA has begun.

    @jdpsyntelos

  2. This is well stated and vitally important. You are right to urge all to support the new plan, but at the same time I do not see the private sector advancing private capital to do deep space exploration. They will not do this until someone else has been there and established that there are profit opportunities out there. This would not be the case with LEO operations.

    NASA must at some point become the key space exploration entity. To delay this and to constrict NASA to just R&D efforts is a horrendous setback. I know from our tweet exchanges that you share these same concerns.

    So, I applaud your support for the new plan and for the new NASA, but I also pledge my support, as every citizen should to fight to SaveNASA to the fullest extend.

    Well done!

    @XiNeutrino

  3. I agree with you XiNeutrino that NASA will need to take the lead for exploration beyond LEO to build up capability and infrastructure so that private companies can then take over some of that exploration. It will take time and we still don’t know the full extent of this new vision and what the White House thinks it should be.

    jdpsyntelos – as for why go back to the moon my answer is this – we have much to learn from the moon for how to live and operate on body other than Earth. Why not learn it 3 days from home instead of 6 months from home?

    @txflygirl

  4. Oh, that’s not me! “As a nation we’re not sure”.

    If it were up to me, I’d reshuffle the budget to put a permanent research facility on the moon with the ISS as way station, and a new shuttle replacement akin to venture star.

    Not to mention propulsion research for Mars.

    And I don’t see how any of this conflicts with the new vision as I understand it.

    @jdpsyntelos

  5. Well, I agree with a Moon Base as I have written here, it would be a sound base of operations for total solar system exploration, and close enough to home base Earth to be highly practical.

    I; however, respect @txflygirl’s view about not fully knowing what the WH plans, but I am afraid Congress is not appreciating the productive potential (jobs and revenue) that a full fledged space ex program can create and sustain. Congress has not joined the U.S. Space Faring Nation, as yet. There are too many members of Congress who’s vision is still focused on the 1860’s (States rights, and severe conservatism).

    Will I see a Moon Base in my lifetime (I am an oldie)? I hope so, but not certain. Lastly lets remember the most vital words ever uttered by NASA: “Failure Is Not An Option.”

    @XiNeutrino

  6. I work as a process consultant to publishing companies, and am a fan of science and space exploration. Having spent a lot of time inside the inner workings of many businesses, there are things that concern me about privatizing certain aspects of the nation’s ability to explore and grow in science and space. Businesses are usually profit-oriented and this drives the decision-making process. Also, the decision-makers are just people who often don’t have the right skills or knowledge to make good decisions that are enduring. Most decisions are very short-sighted.

    I may see the worst cases since the reason I am usually visiting a company is to try and improve it, but the air of a lack of regulation of how things are decided, and the drive for profit rather than benefit to consumer sets up hesitation for me.

    However, on the flip side, the benefit is that money is often available, and if the company IS managed well, it creates a great scenario of beneficial emerging properties.

    You all have a lot more inner knowledge of NASA and so on, but being a concerned outsider, so to speak, I don’t think the current answer is the whole answer yet. Obama seems to like to do things with the long term in mind, and maybe this just the first step of something else. It WOULD be awesome to see more spaceports and companies engaged in space-stuff. But if they run off unregulated and greedy, a lot of science will be lost.

    So how can we create a framework meant to last beyond single administrations that has an element of regulation or direction? I am glad the space tweeps are thinking about it.

    @sumarimike

  7. I fully support NASA’s sharing the fruits of its R&D with commercial space entities and the stimulation of a commercial manned LEO industry for partnership with NASA. My fear, perhaps unfounded and fueled by areas of ignorance, is that NASA, and by extension the United States (as distinct from companies located in the US), will cease to play an active role in manned spaceflight for the foreseeable future.

    My fervent hope is that NASA’s role in spaceflight will remain roughly analogous to that of the Navy in the projection of military power at sea (going forth and accomplishing the mission), rather than that of the US Department of Education in the day-to-day classroom experiences of our children (advising, regulating, and disbursing funds), obviously with no intent to disparage the efforts of the Department of Education.

    Since I am not a NASA employee, my concern about a grim worst-case future may be merely the product of FUD. I know part of it is an emotional attachment to the shuttle program and a deep sense of loss in seeing the fleet retired. I felt the same loss when my Navy squadron transitioned from the A-7E, which I knew intimately and loved, to the F/A-18.

    @jeffreydbrown

  8. Wish I could transition from my Toyota to something like an airplane.

    I love the TRLs idea. Requires flying, and of course there’s lots of flying to do to support and develop the ISS.

    In an expanding space flight economy, NASA will have many consumers.

    I simply can’t imagine NASA not becoming increasingly important, critical and central to a broadening and deepening of the space flight economy.

    Best,

    John

    @jdpsyntelos

  9. I think you skipped over several REALLY important items here:

    1. Commercial companies had already invested cash in development programs well before the new budget & direction were announced. Asking if they will invest is a moot point. They will invest up to the point that they see no way to recoup the funds in a timely manner. That is business!
    2. There was no guarantee that Congress or another administration would continue with the Constellation program, no matter how far along it was. This has been and will always be true of any NASA program. Many other vehicles and programs have been ended this way.
    3. Having a variety of commercial companies all working toward human-rated vehicles makes it more likely that the US (and the world) will have regular access to space. Encouraging a robust spaceflight industry is a smart thing to do for a spacefaring species!
    4. Having a single government entity (with an unstable financial backing) providing our only human-rated space vehicle leaves us extremely vulnerable. A funding cut or safety issue could keep us out of space for years at a time (see: Challenger, Columbia, Constellation).

    It may be uncomfortable to see colleagues and friends moving on to other jobs. There may be some ‘growing pains’ as we transition to a new era in space travel. I’m sure the horse-whip manufacturers and buggy makers had a similarly rough transition when the car came around. Any time you displace an established routine someone is going to get upset.

    The key is to keep your eyes on the goal. What do we really want? Do we want a government agency slowly handing out astronaut wings to a few people per year? Do we want it to take an act of Congress (literally!) to allow a spaceship to be built?

    Or do we want humanity to take to the stars en masse aboard a fleet of spacecraft?Do we want everyone we know to see the blackness of space with their own eyes? Do we want our children to be able to choose whether they live on or off the Earth?

    If we want commercial companies to employ thousands of engineers, technicians, mission controllers and others in a robust aerospace industry, something must change with the way we create and utilize space vehicles in this country. The key is to move toward those long-term goals that got us involved in space in the first place, and not be so distracted by the comfortable routine we’ve established.

    @tim846

  10. sumarimike, you hit on some important points. As a NASA contractor myself, I know lately I’ve noticed a lot more communication going on, which to me is a good thing. One of the big things was Charlie Bolden asking for ideas. That speaks volumes to what I’ve seen in my career – asking anyone, and everyone, to voice their opinion. There are many forums out there for people to speak up about how they feel about space. Some of us, and I know I speak for myself, work in the space business for the sheer joy we receive from watching our hard work come to fruition. Yes, this has been a difficult time. And NASA had, at least in the past, been unable to do some of the PR to let the world know what kinds of things happen there. That’s where SpaceTweeps come in. A lot of us have working knowledge of the inner works of NASA, and have a deeply vested interest. Many of us are certainly not in the space business to make a ton of money, and I swear, if I were an independently wealthy individual, I may even do it for free. I just think it’s that important. Spreading the word is just sort of an “icing on the cake” thing for me. Glad to see people like you piping up with your thoughts, too.

    @LucieD_inthesky

  11. I think Open NASA @ Ideascale is great

    @jdpsyntelos

  12. Thanks for the warm welcome. I feel a sense of responsibility to clear up the air with many of the armchair-naysayers out there who are totally uninformed yet have a strong opinion about the space program, for whatever reason. And fortunately, I have a lot of ammunition, thanks to the openness of the program.

    It probably doesn’t always seem open from inside, but I often ask people to tell me what other agency in the government allows you to ride shotgun up into space on live tv, clearly showing the risks, benefits, and goals each time it happens? I was also grateful for former administrator Michael Griffin for providing some great numbers about how much the average American spends on NASA each year through taxes. That way, when people bemoan the “billions the taxpayers spend on worthless programs” I can turn it around and tell them I bet they buy more beer a week than they spend on NASA in a year.

    And of course my secret dream is to help the space program in some way, directly if possible. Indirectly if not. So, thanks. 🙂

    @sumarimike

  13. tim846 – In my opinion, companies are going to have to invest a significant amount of money beyond what they have already invested. spaceflight is not a cheap business and it won’t provide a return on investment for 15-25+ years if ever. I agree with you that there were no guarantees regarding Constellation’s future. That’s the problem with how NASA is run – on a yearly fiscal budget that goes up and down. Makes for costly governmental programs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to head one direction then in 2 years reverse course again. The direction needs to be well thought out and there needs to be a purpose to it. I have no problems with handing LEO over to commercial. But what exactly will NASA do? What is it’s purpose? What’s the goal? The new vision states R&D….but doesn’t take the next step of stating that we are actually going beyond LEO at any time in the future. I think people need to really look at the overall proposal and what we as a nation want to achieve in spaceflight. Right now, I think people are picking and choosing to see the good/bad in the vision per their agendas. Regarding disruption of an established routine, yes that is what it will take – but do you do it at a time when unemployment is at record levels? Do it do it instantaneously or phase it in? Personally, I think this could be better thought out and planned. btw, loved your last 3 paragraphs!

    @txflygirl