One-percent solutions and other problems

In this week’s issue of The Space Review, Eric Hedman argues that the best solution to NASA’s current problems implementing the Vision for Space Exploration is to increase its budget so that it accounts for a full one percent of the federal budget, compared to its current level of about 0.6 percent. The idea isn’t new: a number of groups, like the NSS, have previously called for raising NASA’s share of the budget to one percent. As Hedman states, “Going out and backing space exploration by saying it is only one percent of our federal budget sounds to the average taxpayer not much different than six tenths of one percent.” That doesn’t sound like much of a change, but when put in absolute dollars—an increase of on the order of $10 billion to NASA’s annual budget—it makes it much harder for Congress to swallow, giving all the competing demands on the budget and the relatively low priority given to space.

That article reminds me that I forgot to discuss here an article I wrote last week for The Space Review about the new approach NASA has been taking in recent months to sell the Vision and the agency in general. This approach leans heavily on “soft power” logic: if the US returns to the Moon and makes other advances in space exploration, it will give the US geopolitical prestige. Yet, as I note, the same argument can be used for spending in other areas, such as dealing with climate change, with potentially greater effectiveness than in space. Such arguments are, on their own, not compelling enough to support government spending on civil space, particularly in a time when people are more willing to cut space spending than any other major federal program.

5 comments to One-percent solutions and other problems

  • Stephen Metschan

    Recent article in the Space Review

    “The Vision Hits a Bumpy Road.”

    Referrences the one that I wrote;

    “Another Voice in the Wilderness”

    From the “The Vision Hits a Bumpy Road.” article

    “A variety of alternatives to NASA’s vision have emerged that use more of the existing Shuttle infrastructure or the EELVs from United Launch Alliance (see “Another voice in the wilderness”, The Space Review, February 19, 2007). Both have been touted as cheaper and faster alternatives to the current plans. Even if they are, it doesn’t matter.”

    Response: So we are to believe that an alternative approach that is more cost effective and significantly closes a politically difficult NASA workforce gap that works within realistic budgets going forward “doesn’t matter”?

    “They have little or no chance of being seriously considered. In a world where funding is so tight for NASA, any consideration of these plans would be interpreted as a loss of credibility in the Vision as a whole.”

    Response: The credibility gap we have is with upper NASA management which squashes all descent within NASA and actively threatens to not award VSE work to dissenting organizations. VSE as a concept to get us out of LEO and into Space is logically solid it’s the approach and threats at retaliation against dissent that is the real source of the credibility problem. See the Challenger and Columbia reports for more details.

    “It would probably threaten the whole idea of replacing the Shuttle and moving beyond Earth orbit.”

    Response: The Shuttle is being replaced the only question is when (+/- 3 years) and under what workforce transition plan it happens, either abrupt (Mike) or smooth (Direct). The Ares I cannot go beyond earth orbit and is duplicative of what we can already buy in ELV’s therefore it plays no definitive role by itself in VSE by definition. It’s the Ares 5 that is the center piece of the current VSE plan. Fail that and VSE fails.

    “As much as I would have like to see two plans advanced, and a downselect to one as was done with the Orion capsule, the plan NASA has is for now the only one that has a chance of long-term political viability.”

    Response: The long term political viability was based on protecting the NASA workforce and existing contractor suppliers lines for STS. None of this is now possible given the current budget interacting with the current plan. NASA is head for a brick wall and the politicians know it. It’s only a matter of time before that knowledge is translated into future upper management or future decisions one way or another.

    “The president picked Michael Griffin to lead NASA and Congress is not going to push for a switch to an alternative. Like it or not, the current architecture for the Constellation program with some possible variations is that only one that has a chance of succeeding.”

    Response: The Politicians did not sign up for the major disruptions Mike’s plan must now necessarily drive their districts to experience. Their ears are wide open at present and once Mike gives them the bad news on May 23 they will be even more open to approaches that achieve their political objectives within a constrained budget. The very same political objectives that got Sean removed and Mike appointed. There are no permanent alliances only permanent interests.

    More to a question I have in addressing the overall point of the article “show me the money”. While all of us space advocates would agree that NASA at 1% of our national budget is a good idea the vast majority of congress are not space advocates and the ones that are simple echo the political realities of their districts.

    The only thing we can change is our approach.

  • The only thing we can change is our approach.

    And I might add that a single approach to space exploration is demonstrably the wrong approach. We need a broad approach, with redundancy.

  • Stephen Metschan

    I would agree.

  • Dave Huntsman

    I’m afraid that pushing for a fixed – and, increased – percentage of the Federal budget has yet another major drawback; possibly the biggest one. To whit: we aren’t managing things well, now.

    NASA, and the USAF, and the Navy (see the recent brick wall shipbuilding has hit vis a vis escalating costs), all, simultaneously, have very low credibility with lawmakers in terms of managing well and to cost. This harks back to the fall of 2003; when just a couple of weeks after the Columbia Accident Board came out with their report showing had badly the Agency was managing things (again), a totally separate report on DOD space procurement was issued, stating almost exactly the same sort of problems on that side of the house.

    Even if other factors allowed this sort of budget increase, it is a non-starter unless NASA would show what it was doing differently, now, that it has not done in the past, with respect to VSE cost containment and control. I maintain we haven’t done that; in fact, it seems that, if anything, we’re more entrenched in the past, with higher relative overhead costs, than ever before.

    One admittedly limited example of something that would at least show an attempt at changing our ways: NASA/Mike Griffin should establish some sort of truly independent, once-yearly cost tracking ‘truth squad’, reporting directly to him. An organization that would track any and all policy decisions, plus the decisions of all the various Level I/II/III Boards within the VSE world, and once a year roll up and assess the long-term, life-cycle impacts (and impacts to cost of ownership and operations) of the various parts of VSE.

    The organization that provided this service would need to have a high-pedigree (i.e, respect quotient) of their own; and have no hardware ownership in the VSE whatsoever. Something like a Booz-Hamilton or a Rand, for example. Someone capable not only of rolling things up technically, but of applying real-world economics to the assessment – and of being believable to the Administrator, and to Congress.

    Now by itself this doesn’t appear to do anything – except cause trouble, which is the point. Having an independent Joe/Josephine gang out there once a year provide a totally independent assessment to the Administrator (and, eventually, Congress)of where real costs are really going, is going to scare the hell out of people, at first. And that’s good. It also over the next couple of years will start adding some discipline to the rest of the NASA system, knowing that there really is a true master bean counter who is adding up everything- not just for an FY (everyone does that), but total life cycle, runout, and cost of ownership.

    That outside entity can’t report through ESMD; that would have no credibility with the Congress, since it essentially the organization being watched. But reporting to the Administrator (administratively, through Scott Pace’s PA&E Office) would be the way to maintain independence and ensure the very top sees what is reported. And that everyone else sees it, too.

    As it is, all of the complaints I heard two weeks ago at the National Space Symposium about the need for bigger budgets misses this key fact: at least in NASA’s case, what, specifically, has changed, such that the Congress can believe that the same ol’ same ol’ won’t happen again, even if we were to get a true plus-up?
    If I were a true congressional space cadet, I’m still not sure I’d push for such plus ups without more evidence that tools and institutions are being put into place to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself yet again.

    Dave Huntsman

  • I’ll add a caveat to Dave’s comment. Too much American management tends to ignore things that can’t be put into a neat little formula. Griffin was right back in March when he called for people who were good at more than one thing. While I’ve made my living mostly in the field of computer software, I have done grad work in first physics and then social psychology. Yes, I know it is an unusual combination. Trouble too often starts when people ignore the so called “soft” sciences completely. Even after things get seriously off track, people will continue to try to fix things in what are really crazy ways. I’d say this is a particular problem with the Bush administration.

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