By John Herrman
Posting in Aerospace
Alarming reports from America's space agency reveal an organization lacking in clear direction, and hampered by doubt.
In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama implored the nation to rise, together, to "our generation's Sputnik moment," referring to the broad challenges presented by a competitive global economy, a faltered domestic economy, and his governments plans for a solution--from increased emphasis on science education to investment in clean energy.
Comparing America's response to these issues to its storied mobilization after the successful launch of Sputnik is apt, and emotionally effective. But it's also poorly timed, as America's space program wallows in an era of unprecedented uncertainty. That there was just one mention of NASA in the 6800 word speech--a quip about how the agency didn't yet exist when Sputnik reached orbit--is telling.
An article in today's New York Times flags a worrying line from a report issued by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, using it to kick off a discussion of a crisis of identity, budget and objective within NASA: "What is NASA’s exploration mission?"
Digging further into the report, it's obvious that this line wasn't taken out of context. The panel, which is charged with "evaluating NASA’s safety performance and advising the Agency on ways to improve that performance," seems at a loss for what, exactly, it will be overseeing in the coming years:
Clarity and constancy of purpose among NASA, Congress, and the White House are the ASAP’s overarching concerns.
While we are seeing the end of the Space Shuttle Program and the proposed termination of the
Constellation Program and its budget authorization, we have yet to see any clear articulation or
funding for a new plan. In this discussion, the ASAP makes a basic assumption that the United
States desires to retain a human spaceflight and exploration program, although the precise form and
extent have yet to be defined
Note that this panel must assume that NASA's future involves a human spaceflight element. Beyond the near-term commitment to resupplying and re-staffing the International Space Station, this evidently cannot be taken for granted. And when it comes to private spaceflight initiatives, the panel has just as many questions, some of which are surprisingly basic:
Even for commercial transportation to LEO, we find uncertainty. What is to be the acquisition strategy to integrate commercial programs to support NASA’s LEO mission? What is to be the system of oversight that protects both NASA astronaut safety and general public safety, given a system of commercial providers? If something goes wrong, who would be liable?
The report continues to say that "uncertainty has become a critical issue."
Granted, the ASAP is an advisory panel that reports to both NASA and to Congress, so its uncertainties about NASA's plans could be chalked up to a simple lack of communication.
There are plenty of other reason to believe, however, that ASAP's concerns represent more than a messaging problem. The Times found a strain of anxiety infecting NASA from top to bottom, centered mainly around budgetary worries and recently altered or closed projects, from the planned ending of the shuttle program to the recent defunding of the Constellation program.
These worries expand beyond NASA, too. Just a few months ago, it was reported the other space agencies, all of which take leadership cues from, and work in concert with, NASA, were beginning to worry about the agency's nebulous objectives. The intervening months have done little to calm nerves at JAXA or the ESA.
It's worth noting that NASA's crisis isn't yet of the urgent variety, and that the agency is likely to be guaranteed a hefty budget for many years to come, regardless of how well it performs or how completely it solidifies its goals and objectives. And I take comfort in knowing that an organization of this size is still subject to existential questions. (If any $20bn-a-year agency has the need to be imaginative or ask difficult questions of itself, it's this one.)
And I fully expect the next few years to be exciting ones not just for NASA, but for man's accumulated adventures into space. Early successes by companies like SpaceX are a heartening reminder that mankind's reach into space will never stop expanding, at least for long; and that our place in the cosmos isn't necessarily determined by the whims of one government's decisions.
But long term, human-exploration-centric goals, like those laid out for the recently canceled and unfortunately mismanaged Constellation program, are what has consistently made NASA great, brought about its most momentous achievements, and cultivated its image among Americans and non-Americans alike. The agency may be able to survive or even thrive by working towards its goals of maintaining the ISS and spurring private spaceflight, or turning its efforts back towards Earth-based research, but not for long.
NASA needs a mission, and it's not clear where its next one will come from.
Jan 25, 2011
1. NASA, has "lost" it's value to the people. It has languished in obscurity brought about the attention on "short-term" crises through the Administrations. 2. There is no way our citizens can be encouraged toward interested in getting off this rock until we lose interest in throwing rocks at each other...
...was to give the Shuttle somewhere to go and something to do. And even then, it's limited to low earth orbit because the Shuttle can't go any higher with any meaningful payload.
NASA does far more than just the Shuttle, and does much of it well. And yet, it has been the Shuttle program, which was oversold to both Congress and the public that has been the major distraction for NASA over the last 40 years. In fact, most of NASA's biggest programs from the 80s through the 90s have been make-work projects just to justify and keep the Shuttle busy. There is no single fault for NASA's problems, although most of them mainly come down to NASA being just another government bureaucracy needing to sustain and justify itself, and a Congress never quite sure what to do next with it. Perhaps the biggest problem is that from the very beginning, NASA mainly has been a national self-esteem agency. Yes, putting a man on the moon before the Russians was about national self-esteem. But at least that was an achievable and measurable goal. Now, our self-esteem missions (make kids want to be scientists instead of reality TV stars and outreach to Muslim culture) are just silly by comparison. It's hard to justify spending billions on that.
"unpluged Space Shuttle, cut Constellation and begged the Russians to ferry us to the Space Station." Shuttle is 1970's technology. The "planes" themselves are 30 years old, elderly for such a dangerous task. We haven't "begged" for the Russian ferry any more than the Russians begged for Shuttle's heavy lift capability. What's wrong with the Obama strategy to privatize low earth orbit transport and launch? I never understood the rationale for the space station. It sure cost a bundle. Has it done anything for us, either as a morale booster like Apollo or as the catalyst for technical innovation? I haven't read anything. For me, the exciting stuff has come from Hubble, the robot fly by exploration of planets, Mars surface. I'm a firm believer in unmanned as the most economical way to develop knowledge What would a base on the moon do for us? Mars with 2011 technology is a much tougher target than the moon with 1960 technology. Probably 100 times tougher. Apollo built on ICBM technology already developed. Fundamental rocket technology hasn't changed in centuries. A hot gas "pushes" the rocket. You need much more fuel to get to Mars and return home than to the moon. Humans haven't changed. A few days to get to and from the moon, years for a Mars round trip. Protecting humans for years of high radiation and zero gravity is not a simple task. And what would we get out of it?
It should be noted that the uncertainty here revolves mainly around the manned space program. NASA has lots of other programs that are doing just fine, thank you very much. The uncertainty about the manned space program reflects the uncertainty in Congress and the past two administrations about where they want to go with it. As another poster noted if you give NASA a clear mission and the sustained funding for it more than likely they'll get it done with flying colors.
Without question NASA has lost it's way and more. It has lost a clear mission vision and for the last ten years or so has suffered from weak and timid administrators and planners. Get rid of the bureaucrats and political suckups. The President must clean house at NASA's top and bring in visionaries and truely competent scientist/engineer administrators. He must support them even though their chosen direction may be politacilly uncomfortable. A suggested mission vison is to establish a viable, self supporting human habitat on the planet Mars. This would be supported by several intermediate mile stones. 1) Complete development of a very heavy lift launch vehicle that can move high volumes of material to orbit (suggest Lagrange point 1 as a parking orbit for human and material cargo transfer to the moon and return to earth). The heavy lift vehicle should have a human transport capability for at least six to eight individuals. Develop a material/people shuttle engine module suitable for transporting material and people to and from the moon at Lagrange point 1. 2) Establish a manned habitat and research facility on the moon to develop the technology required to process native materials into breathable gasses, water, food, energy resources and construction materials suitable for the moon's harsh environment. Get the technology right here and mars should not be a major problem. Leaders and administrators who are passionate and have a clear vision of the mission is mandatory.
As stated directly from the top brass at NASA. President Obama has them doing public relations work with Arab nations to boost their self esteem and remind them of their scientific roots.
No. Give NASA a goal and the budget to do it, they will get it done. NASA does not have a 'hefty' budget to accomplish what it is asked to do. I refer to the Augustine report. We spend more on dog food than we do on safely sending crews to space. Constellation was barely started and the effort discovered water on the moon. It's worth more than gold when it comes to space travel and, by the way, the same discovery found recoverable gold. During a talk by the first crew of Discovery, Henry W. Hartsfield Jr., Discovery commander strongly spoke that the plans during the days of Apollo would have us to Mars in the 1980's. Tech is not the problem. That the budget was cut to less than half lost us the Moon and Mars. The race to the Moon, even though political, helped spur a period of economic growth. IMHO, double NASA's budget, go beyond the space station, and we will create new jobs and new wealth in way no one can predict. Is it any wonder why India and China keep growing their space programs. They know where to find the New Economy.
Commercial use of space & military use of space do not need humans to be in space. If anything, the trend is in the opposite direction. Tasks currently accomplished by piloted aircraft will be taken over by unmanned aircraft. There are no products manufactured in microgravity where the price justifies the cost. There are no quantifiable near-term benefits from the human exploration of space. The focus of NASA must, eventually, change to areas where there is political support for spending - helping industry & the military build better unmanned spacecraft & both manned & unmanned aircraft. Nostalgia for the Apollo program doesn't pay the bills.
NASA has been kind of wandering from project to project ever since the end of project Apollo clear back in the '70s. If you had told practically ANYONE during the moon landing era that we wouldn't be back again for nearly 40 years (and the way things are going it may well be 50 or more) they would have been shocked. Indeed for decades we have lacked the ability (or is it just the willingness?) to fly manned missions beyond low earth orbit, and are about to enter into yet another interregnum where the US has no manned spaceflight capacity at all. Somehow, it seems to me that in much of the last 40 years, the REAL mission of NASA has been to convince people that space flight is so complicated they shouldn't even make an attempt.
NASA has a lot going for it, but with the retirement of the shuttle and other changes, there is a loss of purpose. Between GWB and Obama the missions have been muddled. The manned space missions are very expensive and dangerous; unmanned missions have be quite successful in exploring other planets for longer time than planned. For manned space flight beyond the space station, NASA will need a real goal instead of conflicting programs. JFK did a great job in setting a goal that was achieved under budget and ahead of schedule. The question is whether to return to the moon or to go onto Mars. It may be an easier task to return to the moon and build a permanent base than to send a mission to Mars and expect the crew to return safely. There are a lot of problems that need to be solved before sending men to Mars, mostly it is designing a space craft that can protect the astronauts from solar flares and cosmic rays that can keep the astronauts healthy and fit for the duration of the trip. Landing on Mars and launching from Mars is a huge hurdle. Returning to the moon will help solve some of the problems for a Mars mission.
The Constitution imposes upon me the obligation to "from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union." While this has traditionally been interpreted as an annual affair, this tradition has been broken in extraordinary times. These are extraordinary times. And we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions have imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom's cause. No role in history could be more difficult or more important. We stand for freedom. That is our conviction for ourselves-that is our only commitment to others. No friend, no neutral and no adversary should think otherwise. We are not against any man-or any nation-or any system-except as it is hostile to freedom. If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further-unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.
NASA head Charles Bolden said in a recent interview with the Middle Eastern news network al-Jazeera. When I became the NASA administrator, Obama charged me with three things: - One, he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math; - he wanted me to expand our international relationships; - and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering." http://washingtonexaminer.com/politics/nasa039s-new-mission-building-ties-muslim-world#ixzz1C9DUQR00
Let's take a look at what our Innovator in Chief just did....unpluged Space Shuttle, cut Constellation and begged the Russians to ferry us to the Space Station. Then install a career bureaucrat as head of NASA and make his top priority "Outreach to Muslim Nations". Yep, that'll work. Maybe journalists should spend less pointing to the wreckage and more time warning us about these destructive government policies. That'd be Smart.