In Need Of A Royal Decree
If somebody asked you “who is in charge of NASA?”, what answer would you give? Would you say it’s Administrator Charlie Bolden? He’s more of a manager, and I wouldn’t exactly call him “in charge”. Ironically he probably has the least control over what NASA does even though he oversees operations. What about the President, Barack Obama? Well he certainly has the power of suggestion when it comes to what NASA does, the “power of the pulpit” as it’s sometimes called, but what he says doesn’t necessarily go, and he’s got bigger fish to fry so he rarely says anything at all. Congress has far more control than the President in determining what NASA will do, while the President will more than likely go along with them and sign whatever NASA-related legislation they land on his desk. So then is Congress in charge of NASA? Well… Congress is divided into two bodies made up of many individuals, most of whom couldn’t care less what NASA does so long as they aren’t asking for more money. The duty of “caring” about NASA is delegated to those members that either represent districts containing NASA centers or people at least sitting on the relevant committees (which are usually made up mostly of the former). Can any one of them be said to be “in charge” of NASA? No, not really. The legislation that determines what NASA will do is typically a compromise between different interests, and nobody can be said to have anything resembling unilateral control. Like any agency, NASA’s course is swayed by an ever shifting balance of power between the two major parties in our political system… usually it doesn’t seem to be so bad for NASA as it “enjoys” bipartisan support. But unfortunately this changing of committee leaderships, changing of presidents, and changing of administrative appointments creates a major lack of consistency in NASA’s direction and goals. I have been asked in the past what I want to see NASA doing. When I answer, I usually start by saying “If I were King of NASA…” because I am fully aware that no one President, no one congressman and no one administrator could have such control, so it would indeed require something like a King. Right now I believe NASA is in need of a “King” more than ever.
The State Of The Kingdom
When President Obama took office, he had some people look at what was going on at NASA and asked for recommendations for any changes that needed to be made. He took some of those recommendations and crafted a budget request that was to make some pretty big changes. The biggest of these changes was the cancellation of the Constellation program, which was running well above budget and had a schedule slipping so quickly (one year per year) it effectively represented zero progress. The Constellation program was essentially an Apollo reboot except we would launch cargo and crew separately (which itself was a pretty smart idea, in my opinion). The new plan would also accelerate our commercial crew program since the crew launching portion of Constellation was being canceled. In addition, a new focused space technology program would be started to research and develop core technologies to service and benefit many possible missions, both robotic and human, to multiple possible destinations. This new focus on core technology development was part of a strategy commonly referred to as “flexible path”. The idea is that rather then invest intensely into a specific mission architecture for a specific destination, we would instead slowly develop general technologies that would be helpful in taking us to multiple possible locations, like in-space propulsion systems and radiation mitigation just to name a couple. Then at a future time when more budget could be supplied or made available to support a specific mission we would already have a good deal of groundwork laid and would only need to get started on mission/location specific hardware. With regards to how that hardware would get launched to orbit, plans for a traditional government owned and operated heavy-lift rocket system would be delayed for several years until needed, which might have ended the tradition altogether if commercial alternatives had come online able to fill the need. I thought this was a great plan. In fact it was this proposed plan that got me more interested in space and made me start to consider myself a space enthusiast. Prior to the speech Obama made at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15th (link below) where he introduced this plan, my interest in space was a little more “casual” relative to the average geek. But you know who didn’t love the plan? Congress. You see… building, testing and launching big rockets brings a lot of jobs to many of the NASA centers, particularly when this is done by certain government contractors. So when you try to say “no more big rockets built using traditional contracting methods” to Congress… they don’t like it… they don’t like it one bit. So they replaced Constellation with another big rocket project called SLS (Space Launch System, aka Senate Launch System), didn’t accelerate the commercial crew program as much as requested, and gave the new space technology account such a small budget that it’s effectively impotent. SLS will be canceled before it ever flies a human into space, the only question is how soon will congress accept that and what will happen to NASA then?
So Shall It Be Written…: Overall Strategy
So finally getting around to the point of this rant… what would I do if I were crowned “King of NASA” today? I would start by canceling the SLS and enacting a strict “no NASA launch systems” policy. NASA should focus on what is done IN space and have the relevant equipment, supplies and personnel sent to space on commercial rockets. If there is a need for a launch system with a higher payload capacity than offered by currently available options, NASA can encourage the development of such systems in a manner similar to the way they have encouraged the development of commercial crew and cargo transportation services for the ISS. Basically NASA would reward competitors for progress towards the final product which they would then purchase as a service. So what exactly would I have NASA doing in/sending to space? Let’s first go back to an idea I’ve mentioned time and time again on this blog: “planet hopping”. The concept of a “planet hopping” strategy for space was proposed by Jeff Greason (video link below). The idea is that we would go to Luna (our moon) for the purpose of producing propellant from ice that can be mined there, then using that propellant to go to the moons of Mars. Then we would produce/use propellant from the moons of Mars for the purpose of landing on Mars. Then propellant from either Mars or the moons of Mars could be used to spread even further out into the Solar System. This idea is presented by Jeff Greason as a strategy for space settlement. The original settlers would be there as ice miners for propellant production, and others would move in later for other reasons, supported by the transportation infrastructure already laid down. As King of NASA I would have NASA leading the charge on a strategy based heavily on the idea of “planet hopping”. NASA would lead the way out into the solar system, laying down the infrastructure to make it easier for any that wish to follow. And those followers should be encouraged to follow. It should be the plan from the very beginning that all this space transportation infrastructure that NASA will create will not be for NASA alone. And it should be part of the plan that the private sector will eventually take over these functions. At first NASA will be the supplier of these services, which will help reduce their operational costs. As time goes on they will outsource those capabilities to private companies and NASA will become a customer at a price point that should be lower than the cost of operating the systems themselves. NASA should remain on the edge of the ever expanding frontier, and they should both drag and and be pushed by the private sector in their wake. If the private sector takes the lead on any of those steps, great! NASA can then move forward on the infrastructure built by others. NASA should be adaptable, and having a “King” rather than a bureaucracy would make that easier.
So Shall It Be Done!: Near Term Tactics
What would the beginnings of such a strategy look like? How do we transition from what we’re doing now to what I want NASA to be doing? As I said already, SLS will be canceled. Those funds would get diverted mostly to the space technology program and the commercial crew program will be accelerated (within reason). There will be a focus on developing propellant depots, in-space propulsion, and in-situ resource utilization equipment. With commercial companies already taking an increased roll in Low-Earth Orbit, NASA would move on to the moon and asteroids. I know I had a whole blog post titled “Why I’m Not A Moon-Firster” but when it comes to the “planet hopping” strategy, the moon is an obvious first destination, although it is possible to ignore it and get propellant from just asteroids. The whole point of these activities is two fold: (1) to reduce the cost of access to the moon and near Earth asteroids, not only for NASA but for the private sector as well, and (2) to reduce the cost of getting to Mars, not just once but multiple times, possibly continuously. Then, when the technology is ready, NASA will go to Mars using a spacecraft like the Nautilus-X concept (links below) and follow the same formula to begin moving on the the next destination. Now I haven’t spoken yet about robotic exploration or space telescope missions. I’m very much in support of these things and would want them to get their fair share of the budget. In fact, cheaper launch, propellant depots and advancements in in-space propulsion technology are all things that will benefit robotic exploration as well as the human exploration efforts I have detailed here. Would this overall plan for NASA that I’ve spelled out require an increased budget? Yeah, probably. But not by as much as you may think. Not spending $3 billion a year on a rocket to nowhere frees up a lot of cash, and my plan includes a lot of early investments that serve to decrease the costs of future activities. And as time goes on and NASA pushes forward along the frontier, they won’t continue spending money on operating the earlier infrastructure they laid down because they will have handed that responsibility over to the private sector. Certainly there are a lot of unknowns, and the private sector might not “catch up” as quickly as we may want them to, which is exactly why I’m not bothering to spell out any timetables for these goals. Now… where’s my crown?
What Do You MEAN We Live In A Democracy!?
OK… so the idea of NASA being under the unilateral control of a “King” is, of course, completely ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is the thought that a lowly space enthusiast with no expertise in science or engineering who has never managed more than a retail store with 2 other employees might get crowned as “King of NASA” (a boy can dream). So if monarchy isn’t an option, what can the bureaucracy of a democratic republic offer us as an alternative? Enter the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2012, a piece of legislation crafted during the last congress (the 112th, we’re on the 113th now) that never made it to the floor of either legislative body for debate. If enacted as written (link below) it would establish an eleven member board of directors who would make determinations for what NASA ought to be doing. The President, House speaker, and Senate majority leader would each appoint three members with the minority leaders from the two legislative bodies each appointing one. These board members would serve for three years shifts, and must sit a shift out if they serve twelve consecutive years. They would provide the President with a list of three potential NASA administrators from which he must choose and then that administrator would serve a ten-year term. The board of directors would also provide the White House with a budget proposal for NASA, which the administration isn’t required to follow, but if they don’t then they must submit along with their own budget proposal a detailed justification for why they deviated from the board’s recommendation. The supposed intention of this proposal is to insulate NASA from the typical partisan shifts in power that plague Washington. But really what this would do is solidify the influence over what NASA does in the hands of “interested” members of Congress. Eight of the eleven members would be appointed by Congress, and the congress leaders will turn to their members who “care” about space for recommendations on who those directors should be. But really, at the end of the day, the board of directors has no power. The president doesn’t need to accept their budget, and congress can still craft whatever bill it wants to present to the President for approval or veto (congress is not required to submit justification for why THEY didn’t follow the board’s recommendations). The strongest power this board appears to have is giving the president a list of three possible administrators who will serve a ten-year term. But as I suggested earlier, administrators have no real power over NASA, they are required by law to manage NASA in accordance with the legislation crafted by congress and approved by the President, and because of the ten-year appointment, that function of the board only occurs once every few iterations. So this doesn’t create significantly more consistency at NASA… it just throws up annoying roadblocks to letting the President propose major changes like… oh, say maybe canceling big giant rockets that are recklessly over budget and frankly unnecessary due to commercial alternatives. Is there some middle ground between this type of bureaucracy and a “King”? Perhaps. But regardless of what that might look like, it’ll probably never happen. I think the best hope for a forward moving, relatively consistent NASA is if commercial entities have started to take over a lot of things that NASA has traditionally done… then NASA will be forced to bottleneck into a definitive purpose for being.
President Obama’s 4/10 Speech at KSC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FI8fyqEEDIU
Jeff Greason’s “Planet Hopping” strategy: http://www.tubechop.com/watch/589997
Nautilus-X Presentation Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kkT4sskmM8
Nautilus-X Presentation Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kgcTq952z0
Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2012: http://goo.gl/nBZph