Job Cuts At NASA

An old rocket scientist like me worries a lot about JOOOOOBBBBBSSSSS IIINNNNN SSSPPPPAAAAAACCCCCEEEEEE.  At first glance,  it does not look good when the headlines read “8000 jobs, mostly contractors, could be cut at NASA” once the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010.

On second glance, I’m not quite so pessimistic.  “Don’t overreact to those numbers.”, says Bill Gerstenmaier, an associate administrator for NASA.

The number of civil servants is expected to remain roughly the same, but dramatic job cuts are possible among private contractors as NASA transitions to the Constellation program, which is developing the next-generation vehicle and rockets to go to the moon and later to Mars.

Constellation isn’t scheduled to begin flights until 2015.

I’m a little amused by the report.  Neither job cuts nor job growth at NASA are things on which you bet the rent.  When politicians and their spokesmen speak in terms of budgets that are 2, 3, even 5 years down the road, the one thing you know won’t happen is what they’re telling you will happen.

And in this case, the one overwhelmingly large determining factor next to which all others pale in comparison is the upcoming election.  The direction will come from the new president, the budget will come from new Congress (where the House has a bigger say and the Senate fights hard for theirs) and none of that is fixed.  Well, actually, it appears that it’s reasonable to expect a Democratically controlled House next year, but that’s pretty much all you can say with some confidence.

In the long run the wishes of the people are carried out with surprising fidelity (and isn’t it cool that it works that way).  My take on the “wishes of the people” is that NASA will carry on with somewhat higher than starvation budgets, but not much more.  NASA certainly won’t see a repeat of the glory days of the ’60s, no matter who gets elected.

– Unless life is discovered on Mars or Europa or Enceladus, of course.  Then all bets are off.

In the commercial world the news looks a little better, if not completely bullish.  We’re going to see more jobs come out of commercial space, but for a real boom to happen, we’d have to see far more companies involved than just Virgin Galactic.  The good news is that it’s starting to happen.

For the last few years, commercial suborbital spaceflight has been virtually synonymous with a single company: Virgin Galactic.  The technical brilliance of Scaled Composites and Burt Rutan, as demonstrated by SpaceShipOne and many other aerospace projects, coupled with the marketing expertise of Virgin, made Virgin Galactic the clear leader in the emerging suborbital market for tourism and other applications.

Technological monopolies tend to get challenged rather quickly.

Last week XCOR Aerospace made its latest move into the suborbital spaceflight market, announcing a vehicle, dubbed Lynx, that could enter service within two years.  The efforts of XCOR and others are resulting in a wide diversity of vehicles, leaving it up to the market to determine which one—or ones—work best.

From Rand at Transterrestrial Musings

The real point is that if only Burt could win the X-Prize, it wasn’t because he was the only guy smart enough to design a vehicle to do it.  It was because he was the only guy with the reputation of being smart enough to be able to raise the money to do it.  When it comes to space ventures, the hardest part is always raising the money.  The technical challenges generally pale in comparison.

He’s right, of course.

But in my opinion to call this a “space race” isn’t the right spin, because that implies a government make-work effort of a high-tech sort.  This is economic competition, and for the consumer at least, that is a good thing.  There won’t be as many jobs in the short run, but there will be more benefit.  The jobs will come in the long run.

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5 Comments on “Job Cuts At NASA”

  1. Paul Says:

    “…When it comes to space ventures, the hardest part is always raising the money. The technical challenges generally pale in comparison.

    …He’s right, of course.”

    What trough are you eating from? Raising money has rarely been an issue; examples of badly overrun technical projects that continue to get funded year after year after year abound – and we don’t have to just look to space or NASA or DoD for those examples. The many Internet companies of the 90’s come to mind, as do various projects set forth by the Big 3 automakers.

    The problem has always been solving the technical challenges within time and under budget. Convincing some schmucky investor or Congress to throw money at the problem has always been secondary to making it actually work.

    I’m just saying.

    BBD

  2. joe Says:

    Man, same planet, different universe.

    The key words in Rand’s post are “When it comes to space ventures…” What isn’t clear from context is that he’s talking about science missions – most explicitly not manned space missions, which he sees as am expensive waste of resources.

    In the NASA world since, oh, about 1974, Congress has seen fit to play with its little toy much like a cat does with a mouse when it saw fit. And lemetellya, it saw fit a lot.

    Case in point, the 15 year quest for funding for New Horizons. Technically it was an easy mission; the technology was late eighties, upgraded partially with some early 90s hardware, as the circa 1985 design could tolerate. That mission could been and should have been a no-brainer. In fact, it was, three times. Funding was cut off twice for the thing.

    Case in point 2, HST primary mirror figure is not correct, because a critical test is deleted for budgetary reasons. Why no budget for testing HST, you ask? Manned Space, Rand would say. HST was overbudget and behind schedule in large part because of the delay due to the Challenger disaster, you recall. It was permitted (read, encouraged) to be so by Congress because it was one of only three reasons that the Shuttle existed at all (the others being miliary missions and the ISS). And based on the lack of purpose (except, possibly political) for the ISS, I’ve come around to his point of view – that manned space missions have returned little of note in, oh, about 3 decades now.

    I saw a lot of that – science mission money being cut at GSFC for a Shuttle mission. NASA got locked into the Shuttle concept and design back in the ’70s by Congress and Congress never admits they make mistakes, you know. Their answer – “Let’s throw money at it!” – meant that the money was used to further a bad design and kept the manned mission side of NASA alive and humming along even if it meant the rest of NASA went begging. And it did.

    Harumph. Even when money was easy, the politics was hard for NASA.

  3. Paul Says:

    I think you proved my point.

    It is EASY to sell schmucky investors or Congress on an idea, good or bad. That Congress then discovers that it was a bad idea (Shuttle) yet continues to throw money at it is easy. Had the TECHNICAL challenges not been so damn hard it wouldn’t have been such a bad idea and Congress would not have had to throw so much money at it, paving the way for fewer budget crises. Once it was obvious that the compromises needed to make the shuttle actually fly would doom the project to exhorbitant cost overruns, do you think that Congress COULD have said “kill the program” and put all those thousands of voters out of work? THAT would have been hard. Appropriate, but too hard for them to do.

    That Congress plays cat to NASA’s mouse is a testament to how easy it has been for idiots in Congress and at NASA to sell ice to the Eskimos.

    BTW, I think a permanent moon base is just as stupid, if not stupider.

    BBD

  4. joe Says:

    Well, we’re more in agreement than not.

    But I continue to want to separate the two parts – Manned Space and science missions, because of their different histories and motivations.

    Yeah, manned space is technically hard, but we’ve been doing it since the early 60s. Doing it in the 21st century needn’t have been so technically challangeing, except that we’re dealing still with a shuttle build in the 80s with ’70s technology using a design that originates in the ’60s. Of course, then it *reamains* technically challenging.

    It’s sorta like those flying cars they promised us we’d be taking to work way back when…
    We *can* have those – it’s technologically doable. But we don’t because of 50 little things in the way, called infrastructure. It ain’t the techinology or the money that’s stopping us. It’s inertia.

  5. Paul Says:

    At this point I should make some disparaging remark about your mother, but that would be self-defeating.

    Start another blog entry about this article – http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080403/sc_nm/space_nasa_dc_1 – and we’ll continue the repartee.

    BBD


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