NASA, Politics, Budgets (But I Repeat Myself)

In this most political year, they’re inseparable.  NASA has been tasked by Congress to chart a new vision for space exploration, a vision which includes revisiting the Moon and using it as a launching pad to get to Mars.  A Congressional Report says NASA’s efforts are about to fail for engineering, budgetary and managerial reasons.

A congressional report said NASA’s replacement for the space shuttle, the Constellation Program, is in jeopardy, and members of Congress as well as at least one former astronaut agreed at a hearing on the issue.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said the Constellation program, scheduled to begin by 2015, is troubled by engineering, funding and mechanical issues.

For instance, the program was meant to use heat shielding from the 1960s Apollo program, but experts apparently could not replicate the material.

Both the planned Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle are in danger, according to the report from the investigative arm of Congress.

“If something goes wrong with the development of the Ares I or the Orion, the entire Constellation Program could be thrown off course and the return to human spaceflight delayed,” the report reads.

That last is a managerial issue – a risk analysis.  Indeed, early tests and analysis has shown that the launch vehicle may have severe vibration problems, and both the launch vehicle and the crew module are overweight.  At the same time, NASA is claiming poverty, perhaps with good reason.

[F]ormer astronaut Kathryn Thornton, now a professor at the University of Virginia, said costs linked to retiring the shuttle had not been accounted for in NASA budgets.

“Each year since 2004 when the Vision was announced, the NASA budget has fallen short of that required to achieve the mandated exploration goals and milestones,” she said in submitted testimony.

“In short, there is a mismatch between aspirations and appropriations that no amount of spin can disguise,” she added.

The site Space Politics reports that the questions being asked by House Democrats show that NASA’s vision is under attack.

The proof of this impending attack appears to be in the questions included in the hearing charter like these:

  • Does the exploration architecture, as laid out by NASA, present a technically and programmatically viable approach for executing exploration beyond low Earth orbit under a pay-as-you-go strategy?
  • Is the United States on the right track to reach the Moon by 2020, establish an outpost there, and eventually send humans to Mars, or do any changes need to be made to the architecture or implementation plan?
  • How will progress in implementing the architecture be measured?
  • How sustainable will NASA’s planned exploration initiative be, given the assumed constrained budgetary outlook as well as the cutbacks in funding for long-lead exploration technology development?

I’m more than familiar with these kinds of questions.  They’re use to force someone/something to justify its existence and when asked of a person, I don’t consider them legitimate.   However, NASA is not a person and should have some reasonable answers to all of them.

There remains a problem, though, with those questions.  The answers are sufficient only if the questioner (in this case, Congress) says they are.  And Congress is not qualified to judge the responses.  They will rely, as a matter of course, on “experts” that they select to – wait for it – come up with the answers they want to hear, then they will direct NASA to do it’s bidding.  That’s politics (and I do wish that they weren’t so obvious about it).

I’m reminded of a newly installed Daniel Golden in 1991 cutting budgets prior to the congressional budget authorization and justifying it by saying that if NASA didn’t cut budgets, Congress would, deeper.  We believed him.  The price the country paid for that decision was the “Earth Orbiting System” missions.  Do you remember the EOS missions?  They were NASA’s premier missions of the ’90s, and I only remember them because I worked on AM-1 for a bit.  To this day, I can point to no results from this “Earth Pointing” spacecraft. (Hum… Could it be that it was pointing in the wrong direction?)  It’s what the voting public, and therefore Congress, wanted, after all, and it’s existence was purely a political decision, with no scientific or military merit.  But he who pays the piper calls the tune, and Daniel Golden was more than happy to abide by that.

Once again Congress is directing NASA to accomplish some mission (in this case, return to the Moon and Mars) on the cheap, and is establishing a schedule that can be met only if a proper budget is guaranteed.  They make no such guarantee, of course, because that’s not how it’s done inside the beltway.  The direction is more than a bit unclear because the American Public is also unclear in their priorities.

I’ve just defined the worst way imaginable to make a national decision.  Except for all the others.

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