Thursday, December 04, 2008

Getting NASA out of its funk

A rusty rocket
Image Credit: Clay Bancett / Flickr

I think there's little doubt that NASA is in a funk. The picture above, of the scaled-down design of NASA's Constellation rocket shows just how bad things have gotten (just kidding).

In my opinion (and that's mainly what this post is), NASA's big problem isn't that they can't design and launch wildly successful missions (look at the Mars Exploration Rovers, or the Hubble Telescope repair missions, or even the oft-maligned International Space Station). I think the NASA administration has just failed to come to grasp with two emerging realities: (1) Budgets aren't going to be unlimited, and (2) space travel isn't as sexy as it used to be.

First, let's look at the budget. Last week, former NASA science director Dr. Alan Stern wrote a scathing editorial in the New York Times about the budget woes surrounding NASA's newest big-ticket item, the Mars Science Laboratory. This mission is far over budget, and is taking money from other programs just in order to get completed and launched. As science director, Stern wanted to give the mission an ultimatum: come in on budget, or get canceled. Stern was over-ruled, and resigned in protest. Around here, many of us astronomers view Stern quite favorably, but we felt his editorial missed the mark a bit. He outlines many problems at NASA of which we were already aware, but he offers no solutions.

NASA's budget is essentially flat; it's not going to grow by leaps and bounds. And the NASA administrators know this. So, they have designed several classes of missions, each with a maximum cost. When the call for new mission ideas goes out, there's a budgeted maximum cost. And all of the suggested missions proposals come in to NASA just slightly under this maximum cost. But this is a sham. We know, the aerospace teams know, NASA knows that virtually none of these missions can be completed at the proposed budget; all will take more money. But if you are realistic about costs, your mission proposal will not sell, because it won't do nearly as much science as the non-realistic proposals. And so, unrealistic proposals get funded, and then have to come back, hat in hand, time and time again until the budget has been exceeded by large amounts. And yet NASA continues to fund these projects, which forces other projects to either delay or cut corners because that extra money has to come from somewhere.

Somehow, NASA needs to completely overhaul its bidding process, and require projects to submit realistic budgets. And, if budgets go above some pre-determined ceiling, the projects need to get axed, without mercy. But people (companies, astronomers, NASA centers, etc.) currently play a game. If NASA threatens to cut their program, people go to their congressperson and complain, and then laws get passed requiring NASA to fund certain projects, but without increased funds. Again, other projects get undercut. This culture, also, needs to change, though I don't know the best way to do it.

A realistic budgeting process would seem painful, but in the end it would allow for better planning. We scientists would have to face up to tough choices ("Ladies and gentlemen, we can either send a dune buggy to Mars, a drilling platform to Europa, or build a third-generation Hubble telescope. The mission will be chosen by a cage-fighting match. Each side can choose their representative in the ring."), but at least we would all know that a tough choice or painful compromise would have to be made. ("We'll let you have your dune buggy, on the condition that you fly no missions from 2015-2020, so we can build that drilling platform and that telescope.")

So, budgets are a mess. But there's also what I think is the second reality, that space science isn't as sexy as it once was. Yes, we all think astronauts are still way cool, and it would be great to see a human striding around on Pluto. But even with all of that, I don't see the public getting as excited about space travel as they did for the moon landings. "Been there, done that," as some would say.

Think back to your history classes. Most of us could recognize the names of some of the earliest trans-oceanic explorers: Columbus, Magellan, de Gamma, etc. But now, try and name some of the rum tradesmen of the 1600s and 1700s. I can't do it. Now, try name some of the Mercury astronauts, or the first men on the moon. Not too hard (I got Alan Sheppard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, and Deke Slayton from Mercury, and Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong from Apollo without cheating --my apologies to the other Mercury astronauts of Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Scott Carpenter). But name just one astronaut who was on the just-landed shuttle flight. I bet most of you can't do it. I'm, ashamed, but I couldn't (let's see, there's the one who lost the tool belt, the one who lost the spider, probably some Russian dude... [Note added much later: there were no Russians on this flight]) Space travel is changing. The early astronauts were like the early sailors: famous, lionized. Current astronauts are no less brave, are putting their lives on the line every time they leave port, but they aren't as famous.

I think NASA has yet to come to grips with this. Spacewalks to grease the solar arrays are no less dangerous than Ed White's first spacewalk, they are absolutely crucial to the operation of the Space Station, but they aren't going to catch the public's imagination. In fact, for most people, NASA's hyping of the spacewalks looks silly. ("Heck, I grease the transmission on mah Mustang twice a week, and there ain't no news crew talkin' 'bout that.") Or the news about the temporarily missing spider on the recent shuttle flight did not inspire me to wonder about the biology of microgravity, but rather reminded me of the Simpson's episode Deep Space Homer. (And I, for one, welcome our new arachnid overlords.)

Look at the results to the poll I put up on NASA's greatest success since the moon landings. Most people chose space telescopes (like Hubble); the combined votes for the solar system exploration programs is a close second. My guess is that people think highly of these programs because they work on a myriad of science, and routinely come up with new and different (and pretty) results. The failures sting bad for a time (remember Hubble's screwed up mirror? The Mars mission that failed because people mixed up English and metric units?), but these have been overshadowed by subsequent accomplishments, with completely new and unexpected results coming in.

Now look at the space station. We are building this incredibly large structure in space. That is amazing (and expensive, but still amazing). People can live and work on it for months at a time. Super! But now what? We're studying spider webs? I mean, there is science that can be done, but it's hard to get excited about microbiology in space. And pictures of zero-gravity bacteria just aren't that thrilling ("Looks like mold on a petrie dish to me.") Should astronauts make an important medical breakthrough through space station research, all of this hand-wringing and discussion will be forgotten, the astronauts will be celebrated, and the space station justified. This hasn't happened yet, and we don't know when or if it will. In the meantime, the public sees little coming out of the space station, so it's hard to keep people enthused.

In my opinion, the manned space program is still highly successful. We routinely put people into space and bring them back safely. The entire mundane nature of manned space flight means that it has succeeded wildly. Repairs of Hubble by astronauts are what made the Hubble Space Telescope one of the most popular and successful NASA missions of the last few decades. Without the space shuttle and our astronauts, Hubble would have been a disaster.

I guess what I'm saying is that NASA's funk is, in many ways, all in our heads. NASA's science and manned space missions are by-and-large highly successful. We just need to accept that the extreme popularity that NASA enjoyed leading up to Apollo 11 is over. Rather than trying to recapture the glory days, I would argue that NASA needs to accept it's emerging position as a routine part of government. One that has to fight for (and stick to) its budget. One that produces achievements, sometimes highly visible, sometimes mostly hidden, sometimes thinking long-term, sometimes addressing short-term problems. And I think this is done not by blowing the entire budget on a few high-visibility, high-cost, high-risk missions (Though the occasional one may be okay).

I'll end this long, rambling post with my own, personal list of suggestions of where NASA should focus. Most of these may not be good ideas, but at least they are ideas.

  1. Be strict on budgets. This sounds easy, but it involves preventing other dysfunctional government units (like Congress) from micromanaging NASA, which is hard to do. Especially if large amounts of money are involved. This also involves getting the scientists to think about a larger landscape than their own research interests, and this is nigh on impossible.
  2. Get a cheap, reliable rocket to get humans into space. I fear that the Constellation program is trying to design a single rocket that can do anything and everything. That got us into trouble with the space shuttle. Think of this like designing a car. Rather than trying to design a luxury SUV that can tow 50,000 lbs, carry 60 children to school, drive to Alaska and back on half a tank of fuel, and fight and win a war halfway around the world, just give us a family sedan that can get us to and from work. We know the thing with all the bells and whistles will cost an arm and a leg and probably not be all that reliable. Start with something cheap, functional, and safe, and we can go from there.
  3. Keep a stream of science missions going. Do some on Mars, some on other planets, some space telescopes. Again, don't necessarily try and pack everything we'd like to do on a single mission. This also involves trying to keep us scientists from running off to Congress when our favorite project gets cancelled or delayed. Again, that's not easy, especially if there is a lot of money involved.
  4. Accept reality. The moon missions are over. We beat the Soviets to the moon. This all ended 40 years ago. Rather than trying to re-live or top the past, let's build a good foundation and go from there. Yeah, it would be cool to walk on Mars. Yes, if we put a lot of money into it, we could do it in a couple of decades. But is it worth the cost (money, political, human lives) of centering all of space science around this? I don't think so.
  5. Set goals and work toward them. What do we want NASA to do? Make space accessible to all? Find life on other planets? Send humans to every corner of the solar system? All of these goals are laudable, but they are each giant leaps for humans. Like any other goals in life, let's prioritize and set intermediate goals. Do we want to go back to the moon? If so, why, and what do we seek to accomplish? How will that help us go to Mars or find life on other planets? Let's make a long-range plan, flesh it out, and then set about implementing it.

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