Keeping an eye on NASA

Credible rumor has it that NASA has initiated a “lessons learned” postmortem of Project Constellation in order to camouflage their failure to implement the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) and to justify their new direction.  I had originally intended to expand on the agency’s postmortem pursuit by writing a piece about time wasting, bureaucratic “butt-cover” exercises done for public consumption, when a report in the press caught my eye that nicely illustrates a major problem with the configuration of our national space program.

In brief, a meeting was recently held between elected federal officials from Utah and the top levels of management of NASA.  Although we do not have a transcript of all that was said at this meeting, it is clear that a great deal of dissatisfaction was expressed in terms of the way NASA was fulfilling (or rather, not fulfilling) its directed tasks as expressed in the recently signed Authorization act.  That legislation directed the agency to begin a program to build a heavy-lift launch vehicle (initially capable of putting 70 metric tonnes (mT) into orbit, but ultimately expandable to capacities greater than 100 mT).  They also were directed to use parts of the soon to be retired Space Shuttle system “to the maximum extent possible.”  Similar wording was included in NASA’s last two authorization bills and thus, is nothing new or unconventional.

The press reported that some in Utah’s delegation are not satisfied with the way NASA is approaching this task.  Senator Orin Hatch expressed concern that NASA might not be following the law, or at least, the intent of Congress.  The Senator’s immediate concern is that ATK (manufacturer of solid rocket motors for the Shuttle stack and a large employer in Utah) might be cut from participating in the building of the new heavy lift rocket, probably through the selection of some design that relies solely on liquid-fuel boosters.  Whether or not this concern is justified or even if it is appropriate, it does serve to illustrate an issue: how do we know when the agency is executing its assigned duties correctly, or at least, as they were directed?

In theory, NASA is subject to oversight by both Congress and the Executive branch of the federal government.  The administrator is appointed by the President and answerable to him.  The agency’s budget request is prepared and overseen by the Office of Management and Budget, under White House administration.  In Congress, both the Senate and the House have standing committees that oversee the agency’s authorization (what it is to work on) and appropriation (money to work on it).  In practice, this oversight involves numerous briefings and reports by NASA to its oversight authority – before, during, and after program execution.

This appears to be a lot of oversight, so how could NASA deviate from its appointed task and run afoul of its political direction?  In broad terms, the agency has always complied with its mandate, but as in so many other areas of life, “the devil is in the details.”  When the President says “Go to the Moon!” he is not involved in the minutiae of architectural selection.  He cares only that his direction is executed within the time frame and budget boundaries set forth.  He may have some particular objective in mind and even express that concept as part of a new policy direction, but because he is consumed with a multitude of complex responsibilities, he typically leaves the details of the implementation of his direction to NASA through the agency administrator.  Presidents have little technical or scientific training and have neither the time nor inclination to acquire much more.  These same characterizations apply to most members of Congress; their staffers may possess considerable knowledge on space and technical issues, but can only advise the elected members.  And those members have a thousand other things vying for their time and attention.

So in actual fact, NASA implements space policy as it chooses.  It may get general direction from political entities, but exactly how it approaches a mission or objective is within their institutional discretion.  A given approach either meets its objective or it doesn’t.  Typically, when they run into trouble, the agency goes to the White House and Congress and asks for more money to fix the problem.  Sometimes throwing money at a problem works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But real difficulties come about when no additional money is forthcoming.  That usually means a given program or mission is redefined to be smaller or is cancelled outright.  Is it possible in practice to head off program missteps before it’s too late?

Once the nation had an entity to oversee how the agency was implementing major space programs, a body that existed and monitored the implementation of national space policy in the early 1990s.  As previously configured, the council is comprised of selected sitting cabinet heads and the President, backed up by the expertise of a technical support staff knowledgeable in space flight and program specifics and capable of overseeing and reporting on how NASA is implementing its assigned programs.  Such oversight finds and corrects significant technical issues early, before they become insurmountable budgetary problems.

The major problem with the implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration was that the agency did not adhere to the intent or mission of the return to the Moon segment early in the program.  As this was done subtly, no one (in either oversight branch) initially noticed that an unaffordable approach to lunar return was being developed.  Moreover, because the agency was approaching lunar return as a “super Apollo” set of extended sorties, the architecture was incapable of accomplishing the basic objective of going to the Moon to learn how to live and work there.  A space council reporting to the President directly (not through the NASA administrator) could provide the necessary independent technical advice and oversight the President and Congress require to determine if an architecture or launch vehicle is the appropriate choice for achieving national strategic objectives.  Re-creation of the National Space Council was a specific recommendation of the 2004 Aldridge Commission (on which I had the honor to serve) precisely because of the concerns I’ve discussed here.

This oversight recommendation of the Aldridge Commission was neither embraced nor adopted by NASA.  I know for a fact that Sean O’Keefe did not like the recommendation; although I have not discussed it directly with Mike Griffin, I suspect that he felt the same way about someone looking over his shoulder.  But NASA and the space program do not belong to the administrator, they belong to the American people.  And the people are entitled to and should demand accountability from the agency for a more considered and thoughtful program, one relevant to national interests that won't be abruptly canceled because of budget concerns.  If NASA’s implementation of the VSE had been reviewed independently on a regular and continuing basis, its fundamental programmatic and technical deficiencies would have been revealed and corrected long before the convening of the Presidential-level Augustine Commission, by which time the only solution (an untenable one) was to significantly increase the agency’s budget – to preserve the non-optimum decision made many years earlier, not to set the pursuit of the objective back on the right track.

There is plenty to be said about motives, miscues and the abdication of responsible behavior, but by convening a “lesson’s learned” exercise in pursuit of political cover, we merely continue to delay leadership decisions at the very time the country is demanding that sensible solutions replace national folly.

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