An insider analysis of Congressional space policy

This week’s issue of the journal Nature has an excellent essay by David Goldston, the former chief of staff of the House Science Committee, about why NASA-related policy often seems so dysfunctional. (Unlike most Nature content, this piece is available for free.) A key passage:

Congress often alters the proposed NASA budget, but it rarely, if ever, manages to make fundamental decisions about what the agency’s priorities should be. That’s why NASA so often looks like it is carrying a broad portfolio of programmes, all of them seeming as though they are on life support.

There’s little here that should be terribly surprising to anyone who has followed the issue in any detail (including such well-known observations that there’s no obvious partisan lines on NASA issues, and that there’s little public input to members on those issues). Goldston does have a good analysis of NASA aeronautics funding in particular, where Congress has moved to shore up funding even though the aviation industry “has barely lifted a finger” in support of aeronautics. The result leaves the program “in a kind of limbo: aeronautics lacks the money for its programmes to thrive, but it still consumes dollars that NASA’s leaders want to shift into higher-priority areas.”

10 comments to An insider analysis of Congressional space policy

  • Anonymous8

    The deer-in-the-headlights image of him in front of the flag is a little odd. I assume that this is a regular column (or will be) and that different people will write it.

    His comments about aeronautics are good but too limited. NASA (i.e. the White House) may have decided that aeronautics is “low priority,” but although NASA (and Congress) do not seem to know what they want to do in aeronautics, that still leaves open the question of just how much it should be cut. Should it be eliminated from NASA entirely? Should it be completely gutted to pay for the exploration program? And at what point do the cutbacks cause damage that cannot be reversed (like tearing down wind tunnels)? The next president could decide that aeronautics deserves higher priority, so at some point the program could be resurrected.

    Congress has taken a position that although it does not know what NASA should do in aeronautics now, the program should not be completely eliminated. It’s a valid question of what level is proper and maybe the current level is too high, but the question is not illegitimate. Congress believes that some capability should be preserved. Now this may be a combination of pork and emotion (i.e. a basic ingrained belief that NASA should have an aeronautics role, even if we don’t know what it is), but that does not mean that it is invalid. One could argue that NASA’s other goals are also mixtures of pork and emotion, such as a belief that exploration should be highest priority for the agency, even though “aeronautics” is in NASA’s name and “exploration” is not.

    And could one make the same argument with regards to space science? Should NASA be allowed to gut that in order to put the money into the higher priority exploration program? Are the two situations equivalent in any way?

  • anonymous

    Somewhat partisan but good summary of NASA’s myriad budget problems by NASA’s House authorization chair:

    Despite the anti-Bush White House slant, even the ranking minority member largely agrees:

    But don’t worry, as long as every President and Congress for the next 50 years agrees with Griffin’s priorities and continues to fund NASA and human space flight at an inflation-adjusted level of 8.8 billion dollars per year every year, everything will be alright:

    My kingdom for a NASA Administrator that actually plans for and responds to the constantly changing political and budgetary environment…

  • John Malkin

    Nobody can respond to a constantly changing budget or changing priorities. No project can be successful in those conditions. The blame lies with Congress and their inability to maintain consistent budgets from year to year. In the last 4 years they failed twice to pass a complete budget bill. I feel these resolutions to continue funding at the previous year’s levels has become a way to dodge the blame for cuts. Essentially if you don’t keep up with inflation isn’t that a cut. Inflation would affect each US government program differently but I don’t think any program gets a surplus because of it. I’m waiting to here about privatizing NASA again. That has worked so well for the Post Office being from Chicago.

  • anonymous

    “Nobody can respond to a constantly changing budget or changing priorities. No project can be successful in those conditions.”

    But that’s the nature of democracy. Heck, it’s the nature of humanity. Even the centrally planned Soviet economy ratcheted their civil space spending up and down with changes in priorities and leaders.

    “The blame lies with Congress and their inability to maintain consistent budgets from year to year.”

    We space cadets (including Griffin) can either accept this reality and plan conservatively, affordably, and flexibly so we’re not always at the mercy of the political winds, or we can continue to max out every faulty budget projection with unnecessary requirements and hardware and see our exploration plans get set back time and again and complain to no effect about it when does happen (which is Griffin’s approach).

    We’ve got 50-odd years of civil space policy history to learn from, and we’re still taking the wrong lessons from it. It’s high time we stopped preaching to the politicians about budget stability when they have a gazillion higher national priorities to worry about, stopped hoping vainly that national priorities would not change with each election, and actually planned for the reality of the political and budgetary environment that we live in and got on with a modest and efficient human exploration program that could actually be achieved within that environment.

    Enough Apollo, SEI, and NASA-unique Ares monstrosities. Time for a little creative thinking. Heck, I’ll settle for just a little smart thinking.

    None of the above is directed at you Mr. Malkin… just riffing on a couple of your comments.

  • John Malkin: The blame lies with Congress and their inability to maintain consistent budgets from year to year.

    Not quite. Most of the blame lies with we voters who consistently vote for more services (oh, you can cut someone elses, but not mine! — for us, replace “mine” with NASA), combined with tax cuts, and in the larger economy consistantly living beyond our collective means. If we refuse to live in the real world, why should we expect those we elect to represent us to do so?

    That said, anyone thinking the Soviets ran a rational program should read
    Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the space race, 1945-1974 (NASA history series) by Asif A Siddiqi
    In reality, no one was in charge for more than a few years at a time, resulting in every equvallent of a NASA center running their own program, and getting funded depending on who was in favor at the time. After reading this book, I’m not surprised the Soviets lost the moon race, but I’m amazed they got as far as they did. [Note that this was published as a single volume by the NASA History Office, and split into two volumes for commercial publication.]

    — Donald

  • John,

    I could not disagree with you more. The Congress is a representative body. It changes its mind based on the expressed opinions of voters and organized interests, just as the founders intended. If NASA sets itself on a course that requires perfectly stable funding for decades, it will fail. The world is not static, and NASA can not, will not, and in my view, should not, be protected from the vicissitudes of public opinion.

    In fact, I would go further, and argue that NASA’s program should be have to be designed to earn growing robust public support, rather than simply expecting/demanding it based on “we are NASA”. The fact that NASA faces a political market test is a GOOD THING.

    I just wish it were a more liquid, faster-responding market. Because then, NASA might be graded based on outputs (results) rather than inputs (dollars and employees).

  • canttellya

    What’s worse than that is the fact that NASA will commit itself to the course that will strain its existing budget to the nth degree, based on the (erroneous) idea that if they don’t ask for the last penny (and then some) that Congress will “take their money away”.

    ESAS was a program conceived to FILL the budget wedge provided by the cancellation of the shuttle, and someday the station. Based on NASA’s poor track record of estimating costs, a program designed to mop up available resources will be busting its seams six months later.

  • Monte Davis

    But that’s the nature of democracy… we’re still taking the wrong lessons… It’s high time we stopped preaching to the politicians… a modest and efficient human exploration program that could actually be achieved within that environment….

    Better ease up on that bad-tasting adult stuff, anon. “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” and space enthusiasts even less. :-(

  • L. Kerr

    I have to agree that it’s time NASA accepted the lack of interest from Congress as a normal part of its existence…

    Obviously, NASA could do a lot of streamlining that would make it much easier to succeed in spite of fluctuating budgets… That will be tricky, but not imporssible… After all, Space is still a frontier, and frontiers are dangerous… Cowboys didn’t have multiple redundant safety systems, but neither did they have low bidders… NASA must live with these realities & strike a balance by taking smart risks… Unfortunately, the people in charge are not comfortable with risk-taking of any kind… They are not pioneers on the final frontier, but bureaucrats who are, for the most part, more concerned with kissing up than with discovery… It’s not just the brains of NASA that needs to be revamped, but its heart…

    Unfortunately to get its heart back, NASA would have to fire well over half its executive ranks, and find some way to avoid replacing the fired execs with the obvious heir apparents… The Rodgers Commission was the first to make note of the fact that NASA executives have become a highly homogenous & in-bred group, and although NASA has become more diverse in terms of race & gender, there is no more diversity of opinion or ideas at NASA than there was then…

    NASA also needs to learn to fess up to Congress when projects are doomed to failure by inadequate budgets… They need to stand behind their integrity & let the politicians duke it out instead of pandering to every political interest that is expressed, however tangential, spreading themselves too thin in the process…

    If NASA would occasionally take a strong stand for something, it might find the public interest renewed, and when the public cares enough, perhaps Congress will pay attention… If not, then NASA should be content with doing a few remarkable things very well, rather than botching a broad array…

    Aeronautics at NASA is dying, and anyone who has seen the crumbling infrastructure knows it… Ames Research Center has closed some of the best wind tunnels in the world and is instead leasing its land to Google to continue to pay its workforce… So why keep promising NASA can do a decent job of continuing aeronatuics research when it’s plain enough the infrastructure and budgets doesn’t support it? At the risk of being too blunt, NASA needs some cohones…

    Finally, although there’s no denying that Congress could care less about NASA right now, there are an awful lot of kids, parents, teachers, scientists & engineers, entertainers, business people, and others who are still inspired by NASA and DO care about continuing its mission… There are ways to capitalize on that kind of public support if NASA would only convince the Congress to give them the tools to do so… It would require some legislative changes, but to me it seems simple enough to ask of the Congress, “If you can’t fund us to a sufficient level, let us find ways to fund ourself…” The Google partnership is actually a start in this direction, and if they did more of that sort of thing, perhaps NASA could do more than break even… In the end, Congress may refuse, but it seems worth a shot…

    That’s just my personal opinion , of course…

  • Thomas Torres

    Let’s cut the crap!
    Real leaders make hard decisions !
    There is not enough public support to fund a healthy aeronautics program and a healthy exploration program at NASA.
    that is obvious, so do we cut the baby in half ?
    No ! we decide ! and we recommend to Congress what we should do!
    I spent half of my 40 years in the aeronautics sector of our aerospace industry..yet now I am working on space related projects… but I really believe it is in the best national interest that we pursue space exploration.
    Unlike columbus we have not wooed the “Body Royale” with enough vision and solutions so that Queen Isabella (Congress) does not have to hock her jewels (our grandkids college money and SS) to get some really nice trinkets from the new world !!!

    Gee …but it’s hard to be an explorer!!

    1. Transfer the NASA Aeonautics R&T facilities and personell to the USAF and the FAA.
    2. Rename NASA to NSEA (National Space Exploration Agency)
    3. Have Congress write legislation to work out the details to expand the role of the FAA in R&T, and to allow the USAF to provide R&T services in Aeronautics if NASA needs them, (using AFWAL or other labs)

    This was suggested to the Agency at a high level (by me), but there is no evidence that any real discussion about this has taken place within the Agency..they are too busy flying to the moon again………..

    Actually maybe this idea is political poison? , and the current NASA Administratoer is not ready to leave yet?

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