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A few notes on the Aldridge Commission report rollout

I refrained from commenting on the Aldridge Commission’s final report because so much had already been said about its (leaked) contents before its release. (Also, I have been very busy the last several days.) There were a few tidbits about the release I wanted to point out:

  • If you haven’t already watched it, check out the introductory video shown at the beginning of the press conference (available in Real and Windows Media formats.) Recognize the narrator? Hint: Buzz Aldrin was not in attendance at the press conference.
  • Perhaps the most telling comment during the press conference was made by Pete Aldridge, when he was asked why the commission recommended converting NASA centers into FFRDCs instead of closing one or more centers: “We thought about it a long time, and our view was that if we put into our report that the Congress and NASA should undertake a base realignment and closure action, the report would probably have burned on the first day.”
  • In addition to handing out copies of the report (both hardcopies and CDs), there were some other giveaways at the press conference, like lapel pins with the commission’s logo. Also, bizarrely, were miniature astronauts: foam rubber figures, about 12 cm tall, of a spacesuited astronaut clutching a wrench in his (her?) right hand, with the NASA logo and URL on the backpack. (See pictures of the front and back of the figure.) At one point dozens of these figures were lined up on a table, like soldiers standing in formation, free for the taking. (There were also several on another table, standing guard over a stack of press releases from organizations like the NSS and Space Foundation endorsing the commission’s report.) Perhaps if we can miniaturize astronauts, we won’t need a heavy-lift launch vehicle…

24 comments to A few notes on the Aldridge Commission report rollout

  • I’m disappointed that the focus remains on NASA, instead of how the government in general is going to carry out the vision.

  • Anonymous

    “We thought about it a long time, and our view was that if we put into our report that the Congress and NASA should undertake a base realignment and closure action, the report would probably have burned on the first day.”

    It’s a pity they weren’t around when the Vision for Space Exploration was formed. If the Vision emphasized ‘shuttle replacement’ instead of ‘Moon-Mars’, the Vision would not have been attacked on the first day.

  • Perry A. Noriega

    Rand is correct, it is about how “NASA” will “do” space, not about how the rest of the government wants to work on space, or about how the private sector wants to contribute to space development/settlement. It may be mentioned that other entitites will be asked to participate, but NASA wants to run the entire show as usual, because “big brother knows best, just ask us, we’ll tell you” how to “do space”.

    More NASA micromanagement in the face of being pointedly told NASA as it is cannot do much of anything correct in getting people into and back from space without loss of life, spending billions of dollars, and doing so repeatedly and economically. It seems to me NASA would do well to experiment with allowing private companies and industry try their hand at putting together whatever means will work safely, economicaly, and repeatedly, to access at least low earth orbit by innovative means.

    This to me is more proof (if any is needed) of several things. First: we are in an era of what I call “The Great Change”, where every field of human endeavor is undergoing transformation like it or not, by either forces from outside it, or painfully from within. Second: The old ways of doing things don’t work anymore; it’s time to find new ways that do work. Third:Space cannot be confined to government experts,NASA management, or any government agency exclusively, for exclusively government reasons, nor can it be micromanaged or directed via the “Master government plan”, or it will not happen at all. It must involve interested private citizens and their own unique, individual reasons for going into space for reasons that seem good to them, or likewise, it will not happen.

    Attracting more private capital to space development will happen only when a profit can be made from doing so, when the government sets up a means to support the already difficult job of getting to space and doing things there, and encourages, not just allows or permits, private property rights on the Moon, Mars, asteroids, wherever. Or it will not happen at all.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Dr. Foust wrote:
    “Perhaps the most telling comment during the press conference was made by Pete Aldridge, when he was asked why the commission recommended converting NASA centers into FFRDCs instead of closing one or more centers.”

    Aldridge said the same thing during his Senate testimony on Thursday.

    But this raises some interesting questions, such as whether or not they thought that the idea had merit. If so, why not mention it in the report? And then there are lots of related questions, such as how can they argue that the space vision has to be treated as a national priority, but then not advocate things that will make it happen? Is it a national priority only if it continues to serve interests of political pork?

  • John Malkin

    I think whatís most important is the American people must take ownership of the space vision. We must unite even if itís not a perfect consensus of details. I think in many ways this is the point of Aldridge report.

    The CAIB report said the vision must come from the president and congress but it will only be important to them if the voting American public takes a long term interest.

    I think the Moon and Mars goals are good long term goals. If we are successful in establishing a moon base with a large number of people, the private sector would be evolved eventually. There are so many companies and entrepreneurs waiting of opportunities. I think the points outlined in the report cover that with the FFRD centers and large prizes. Itís what started our airline industry and that is small in comparison to an interplanetary transportation system. Think of all the companies that depends on these services now.

    These words should have come out after Apollo missions and the Challenger disaster. Our space program has been trying to rise from the ashes with little vision, direction or vocal support. I plan to show my support by contacting as many members of congress as possible and the presidential candidates. I donít want this dream of space colonization and exploration die. If we donít start something now in the aftermath of Columbia than it may be years before it will happen and it may be under another flag.

    I think the National Space Society has the right idea in uniting all the space enthusiast groups and making there voices heard in a well thought out way. Enough voices will make a difference. How much do we really care?

  • Harold LaValley

    “There were some other giveaways at the press conference, like lapel pins with the commission’s logo, miniature astronauts: foam rubber figures, about 12 cm tall, of a spacesuited astronaut clutching a wrench in his (her?) right hand, with the NASA logo and URL on the backpack. At one point dozens of these figures were lined up on a table, like soldiers standing in formation, free for the taking.”

    Well if some thought they could make a buck making these items and placing them in the local wal Mart, Kmart or other such store we could easily get a jump start on the rising cost of Nasa doing space exploration.

    snipet from email to the moon to mars:
    Collectible memorabilia is a broad term. Which includes Coffee cups, posters, clocks, and a lot of other style of items.

    1. The one that comes to mind that will greatly create the Hero image of old and capture the current Heroís of the now generation is a spin off from Baseball cards. You know the sports heroís with statistics of your favor players on the back. Some of these are Holographic and other are simple laminated cardboard/ poster paper. People of all ages collect cards young and old alike for a verity of reasons.

    Start a series of the Heroís of each era starting with some of the X-series all the way up to the Shuttle with cards that have the rockets, mission types and Astronauts that each where part of. Next do a series of cards that show the robotic exploration of the planets, the planets with average information of size and such. Then finish the series off with all the fallen Heroís from the Apollo, Shuttles and any others that I forgot make these the Holographic style.

    2. Other Items such as playing cards with each astronaut on the front with the normal suits and numbers. The products can be pens, Posters, models of each robot craft and landers as well as many more of the lower priced products.

    These items should have the Moon to Marsís logo, NASA and maybe others that are appropriate. Each sale could donate a percentage back to the SEI vision of President Bush or flat rate which ever is appropriate for the value of the item.

    I also had sent in Tee shirt concepts and such for ideas to aid in self funding the vision.

  • Harold LaValley

    News elease for the Nasa Langley site:

    news snippet
    It would take a lot of changing before the government-run NASA Langley Research Center could transform into a privately run operation like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

    http://www.dailypress.com/news/local/dp-30226sy0jun20,0,3021352.story?coll=dp-news-local-final

    NASA and Congress haven’t endorsed the recommendation.

    Critics on Capitol Hill or a change in the White House could kill the exploration vision before anyone has to worry about how to enact it.

    But NASA is still taking the idea seriously.

    Langley Director Roy Bridges ordered all the center’s 3,800 government workers and contractors to read the commission’s report and provide feedback.

    “I think you will find it very interesting reading, as well as a challenge to us all,” he wrote in an e-mail to employees.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    There is a pretty decent NY Times editorial on the Aldridge report:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/21/opinion/21MON1.html?ex=1088835730&ei=1&en=80374f5b6410dafd

    (registration required)

    The editorial notes that there is no analysis of whether or not FFRDCs actually provide the government with value. I was also rather surprised to hear Aldridge say in his Senate testimony that once you have converted a center to an FFRDC, then “the market will take over” (to paraphrase). But how, exactly, does the market affect FFRDCs? Is JPL controlled by the market in any way?

    And as Space News notes in its editorial on this subject, JPL demonstrates how FFRDCs can go wrong–JPL got started down the road of building “gold-plated” spacecraft, a trend that was not reversed until Dan Goldin came along. It’s worth noting that one thing that Goldin did was to set up the Applied Physics lab as a competitor to JPL to scare them into performing better.

    So the FFRDC recommendation seems to have some big weaknesses, and as the NY Times editorial pointed out, the commission did not provide much background justification for its recommendations.

  • Is JPL controlled by the market in any way?

    It’s not so much controlled by the market as not controlled by civil service rules. It can fire folks.

    You many, or may not be, surprised to hear that many of the civil servants at the non-FFRDC centers are concerned about this…

  • Harold LaValley

    On a note of continuing education into Space related fields or at Nasa. The Public Service Of NH power company’s insert that accompanied the billing include a note on scholarships.
    http://www.psnh.com/commonutils/common/content/psnh/athome062004.pdf

  • Those little foam figures are strange indeed.

    The FFRDC recommendation is a cop out. Several NASA centers should be closed down or transfered over to the commercial sector. I recognize the political hot potato, but there are ways to pull off such a process over time without throwing people and work on the street.

    In fact, I think NASA should be split in two, each resembling a version of the agency’s former self: NACA. One part should be dedicated to aeronautical RDT&E and the other to astronautical RDT&E. Both would contribute to the commercial sector by undertaking the high-risk, high-cost RDT&E that companies can’t afford independently, while at the same time contribute to the advancement of civil and militry space missions, technologies, and processes. Both should also be customers for the commercial space sector.

    This Aldridge Commission report will collect dust on a shelf somewhere, along with so many of its cousins. The paleolithic NASA will continue much as it has for decades, along with other increasingly ineffectual organizations like the DoD, FBI, and CIA. These Cold War orgs need to reinvent themselves in a radical way, not in a half-a** way. The talent and manpower are there, for the most part, but the mission and mechanism to execute the mission are not.

    Our country’s future depends on it.

  • John Malkin

    How long do you think it would take Congress to chop NASA in half? The urgency is already beginning to fade. The same thing happen in the 60s with Vietnam by the time the war (or whatever) was over very few were thinking of space. Tomorrow at 11am EDT Sean OíKeefe will discuss the reorganization of NASA. Iím interested to hear what he has to say in response to the report. He is committed to getting us into space permanently and I think he will find a way even if he has to close field centers. He comes from OMB so he is familiar with cutting cost. He brought IIS into a reasonable budget. OíKeefe has vision but itís based in the reality of today.

    Who in the private sector is going to take over the field centers? Boeing, Lockheed or Scaled Composites at KSC? What services do they sell at JSC? (How to be an astronaut?) It will take two to three years at least to figure out how to realign the field centers to support the private sector.

    When I have gone to a client where employees worry about loosing there jobs it’s usually because they deserve too. Employees (all the way to the top) can be divided into two groups either they are part of the solution or part of the problem. Letís hope OíKeefe picks the right group. He takes the Columbia accident personally and he will do anything to ensure they didnít die in vain.

  • John,

    All good questions. What I listed are what I believe should happen as a taxpayer. What will happen is likely to be very different.

    As far as turning over the NASA field centers to private enterprise, I failed to mention that these centers can be transformed into university research centers, labs, and so on, perhaps with government help (which could conceivably cost less than operating a field center). Several military bases have found second lives by becoming new education centers, airports, low-income housing, etc. I guess the point is this: If we know that we don’t need something, we should aim to get rid of it. I’m aware of the tired mantra that “to close down a government agency is more expensive than to keep it going,” which is crap. But, since NASA and so many other bureaucracies have essentially become glorified jobs programs, it is unlikely we will see anything significant happen to NASA in the short term. Indeed, the commercial sector and growing military presence in space may force NASA to evolve into a better organization over time, rather than directives from the President.

    After reading the previous paragraph, which admittedly sounds harsh, I should point out that the NASA I loved as a kid is not the NASA of today, and that often makes me sad. NASA did not become something better as I got older, its greatest moments recorded between 1958 and 1981. In principle, I believe we need a civil space agency. Just a different one, building on the wonderful successes of NASA.

  • John Malkin

    Correction: Thursday 11am EDT Sean OíKeefe will discuss the reorganization of NASA.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Simberg wrote:
    “It’s not so much controlled by the market as not controlled by civil service rules. It can fire folks.

    You many, or may not be, surprised to hear that many of the civil servants at the non-FFRDC centers are concerned about this…”

    Why shouldn’t they be concerned? And isn’t their concern just as valid as the concern that someone at a private company has when their company is bought out, or taken over by incompetent management? It is not illegitimate to be concerned with job security.

    But the commission did not propose FFRDCs in order to allow the centers to then fire people. They proposed FFRDCs as a means of achieving efficiencies, but I’m not sure that there is demonstrated efficiency to FFRDCs as a rule.

    I believe that a couple of studies of this subject were performed during the 1990s, although I have nothing more than vague recollection about that. I’m scratching my head to think who studied this. I think it might have been the Air Force and the National Research Council separately evaluating whether the nation’s large number of Cold War era FFRDCs made sense anymore. I think their general conclusion was that there are good FFRDCs and mediocre ones and simply because an organization was an FFRDC did not mean that it was more efficient than a dedicated government lab.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Smith wrote:
    “The FFRDC recommendation is a cop out. Several NASA centers should be closed down or transfered over to the commercial sector.”

    It is a cop-out and it is being perceived as such. During the press conference at the rollout of the report the reporters asked questions along those lines, saying things like “isn’t this just another way of saying that one or more centers should be closed?” They lacked the courage of their convictions on this, which is admittedly troubling–after all, independent commissions are created to make tough calls like this, but they ducked this one.

  • Dr. Day asked: “Why shouldn’t they be concerned?”

    Did I say they shouldn’t be concerned?

    “But the commission did not propose FFRDCs in order to allow the centers to then fire people. They proposed FFRDCs as a means of achieving efficiencies, but I’m not sure that there is demonstrated efficiency to FFRDCs as a rule.”

    One of the ways of improving efficiency is by removing deadwood. Surely you’re not claiming that such is non-existent at NASA centers?

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Smith wrote:
    “In fact, I think NASA should be split in two, each resembling a version of the agency’s former self: NACA. One part should be dedicated to aeronautical RDT&E and the other to astronautical RDT&E. Both would contribute to the commercial sector by undertaking the high-risk, high-cost RDT&E that companies can’t afford independently, while at the same time contribute to the advancement of civil and militry space missions, technologies, and processes. Both should also be customers for the commercial space sector.”

    Unfortunately, aeronautical research at NASA has been a tennis ball, constantly bounced back and forth from one side of the court to the other (how’s that for an analogy?). A big part of the problem has been ideology, different interpretations of the role of government in fostering high technology research. Should the government perform research that will lead to better jet engines for commercial use? Or better flight control surfaces for commercial use? Or better wings, etc? In the past, people have tried to define “pre-commercial research” as things that commercial airplane and engine manufacturers would not develop on their own, but it’s really hard to define these.

    This is less of a problem now as it seems that the Bush and Clinton administrations have apparently decided to not fund much aeronautical research at all–they made a simple budget calculation and never really had to consider ideology. But in the past a change in administrations, or in Congress, could lead to a change in views on whether NASA should be conducting this kind of research at all or whether the “market” would take care of it. Nobody really uses the term much anymore, but aeronautical research is part of an industrial policy.

    Mr. Smith also wrote:
    “This Aldridge Commission report will collect dust on a shelf somewhere, along with so many of its cousins.”

    I am pretty familiar with a lot of these reports, although it has been a long time since I’ve read any of them in detail. But it is true that few of them actually translate into real change. The Stafford commission report of 1992, for instance, made a number of recommendations concerning the Space Exploration Initiative. The only problem was that SEI was dead by the time it came out. The Augustine commission report largely sank without a trace and is perhaps most remembered for its suggestion that NASA receive budget increases that it never got.

    I have to sit down and read the Aldridge commission report cover to cover, but so far I think that there are some useful recommendations there and some that are really useless. O’Keefe has stated that he intends to implement the report’s recommendations. Of course, some of them are beyond his ability to implement (like a space council), some are going to be decided elsewhere (FFRDCs in Congress, for instance), and some of them are essentially empty. And NASA has no ability to implement any of them before the election, and the election will determine if any of them get implemented at all.

    The report seems to be filled with a lot of wishful thinking and empty recommendations, like saying that everybody should be thinner and should floss regularly. They state that the vision for space exploration should be a national priority–at the same time that we have abundant evidence that it is _not_ a national priority. And they state that it should receive more attention from the White House, when the White House has clearly decided not to pay attention to it. (Where is that presidential speech that was supposed to happen when the report was produced?) I’m not willing to totally write off the report yet, but I admit to being somewhat disappointed at its recommendations and findings.

  • Hello Dwayne, hope you’re doing well.

    Regarding NASA’s aeronautical work, your sentiments match those I’ve heard from other folks, one of whom works in aeronautics at the agency.

    My thinking was that a separate agency to handle aeronautical RDT&E would prevent the dwindling interest in a critical area of research and development. Aviation and the system to keep it alive are undergoing a transformation that is expected to be radical during the 21st century. I’m concerned not enough attention is placed on this issue from the government outside of the FAA, and even then I wonder.

    Perhaps I’m naive, since erecting an agency, even if it is derived from an existing one, doesn’t necessarily mean the mission will be handled adequately.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Smith wrote:
    “Regarding NASA’s aeronautical work, your sentiments match those I’ve heard from other folks, one of whom works in aeronautics at the agency.”

    Eric Conway, the contract historian for NASA Langley, has written a history of supersonic research at NASA. I have not read it, but have heard him discuss NASA’s hypersonic research (NASP) which was one chapter in the book. He discussed how aeronautics research used to be tossed back and forth as administrations changed. Some thought that funding aero research through NASA was vital to maintaining the US lead in aeronautics. Others thought that this should be left to the very large aero industry (Boeing, etc.). But now nobody really discusses it much, although I have met some people in government who are convinced that industry is not performing the kind of basic research that it needs to be performing. I don’t believe Eric’s book has been printed yet, but it undoubtedly goes into these things.

  • …industry is not performing the kind of basic research that it needs to be performing.

    It’s not, because it expects NASA to do it, but NASA’s not doing it either (and it’s not just because of funding–they pissed away over a billion dollars on High-Speed Research in the nineties, in a program as disastrous as X-33, both in its failure and the utter predictability of it).

  • Dang, Jeff, I wish you’d put up a warning that you don’t allow HTML. I keep forgetting, and emphasizing others’ words with tags, and it doesn’t show up, so they look like mine.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Simberg wrote:
    “and it’s not just because of funding–they pissed away over a billion dollars on High-Speed Research in the nineties, in a program as disastrous as X-33, both in its failure and the utter predictability of it.”

    Dr. Conway’s chapter on hypersonic research touched on this issue. If I remember it correctly, he covered it because it emerged out of the wreckage of NASP.

    I don’t remember all the details, but this was a joint NASA-Boeing research program similar to X-33 in that both were supposed to put their money in at the beginning. But after several years of work, Boeing crunched some numbers and concluded that there was no real market for high speed transport. It was too marginal.

    But I disagree with your implication that industry doesn’t do this research because they “expect” NASA to do it and NASA is not doing it. That only works once. After they see that NASA is not doing it, you would expect them to pick up the ball. But they haven’t.

    To be a little more precise, they certainly do perform some of their own research. After all, Boeing is putting a new wing on the 7E7 and is obviously doing research associated with fuel efficiency and things like that. But it is a relative thing–should the US (government and industry combined) be doing more aeronautics research than it is doing? If so, why is it not happening?

    I have already offered a partial explanation for why the government is not–there is ideology at play (“This is not a proper role for government.”) and also tight budgets. But what explains industry’s lack of attention to this? One possible explanation is that the US has really lost a lot by reducing to only one commercial jetliner manufacturer and that Boeing is now so diversified that it is no longer as interested in maintaining its edge in commercial jetliners as it once was. They can make more money on other things. That is one explanation. I don’t claim that it is the only one.

  • Dr. Day, you’ve asked some questions that are far beyond the scope of a blog comment, but due to historical reasons, Boeing commercial aircraft is not in the R&D business (they are a designer and manufacturer of aircraft, operating from standard design handbooks derived from NACA/NASA research), and the part of Boeing that is sees it as a profit center (they make money on contracts from NASA and AFRL), not a cost of doing business.

    Boeing expects NASA to do its R&D for it, and if NASA doesn’t, the response is not to spend its own money on it, but to spend it on lobbyists to make it happen, which is usually much cheaper and provides greater leverage. Since both Boeing and NASA mistakenly believe that practical commercial supersonic flight is impossible, there’s no pressure for useful research on the subject to occur.