Congress, NASA

A growing distraction

Yesterday’s hearing of the investigations subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee made it clear that the controversy surrounding NASA inspector general Robert Cobb is not dying down, although it might yet be overshadowed by NASA chief counsel Michael Wholley’s decision to destroy DVDs of a meeting between Mike Griffin and members of the IG staff. By the end of the hearing, according to various news reports (I didn’t watch the hearing, being in Dallas for a conference) Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the ranking member of the subcommittee, said that if the chairman, Rep. Brad Miller, drafted a letter to Attorney General asking for a formal investigation into the matter, he would also sign it. (This, of course, is the same Alberto Gonzales that many in Congress wish would resign.) In any case, it appears that NASA is faced with twin issues that could prove embarrassing for the agency: the actions of Cobb himself, and the DVD destruction decision. The question: if these issues drag on for months—very possibly, particularly if the DOJ gets involved in an investigation—what sort of adverse impact does it have on the agency’s overall reputation as the FY08 appropriations efforts get into high gear?

16 comments to A growing distraction

  • Since NASA, ATK and Michael Griffin are also demonstrably culpable of the FRAUD intrinsic to the ESAS process, then I would say they have a real problem on their hands, not just a minor problem. The DOJ and the NSA investigations are just the tip of the iceberg, we’ve have a complete breakdown of scientific management in this administration, that started with Marburger, and has moved right down the chain to Micheal Griffin (NASA), Conrad Lautenbacker (NOAA), David Johnson (NWS) and Max Mayfield (NHC). They just haven’t got around to fully investigating this yet, since congress demonstrably has far more serious issues to contend with first. All of these individuals, Cobb and Wholley included, will be gone in 2009, if not before.

  • D. Messier

    It’s probably not good for NASA, to say the least.

    Hey, can someone answer this: I thought I had read somewhere about an on-going investigation into NASA and NOAA concerning attempts to stymie discussion of global warming. Do I remember that right? If so, anyone know what the status is?

    If that turns up something, then add it to the proposed investigation relating to the IG, and problems with lunar program are serious and THAT becomes public, then NASA could have a “perfect storm” on its hands.

    One hopes they do a better job than Gonzales and company at taking responsibility for whatever might have occurred.

  • Michael Griffin calls Robert Cobb – ‘My Guy’.

    http://www.cfnews13.com/News/Local/2007/5/25/nasa39s_top_boss_standing_by_robert_cobb.html

    NASA supposedly backed away from the global warming and climate change censorship after the James Hansen fiasco, but Conrad Lautenbacher still has NOAA scientists gagged, and David Johnson of the National Weather Service was firing whistleblowers outright (Patrick Neuman). Many laws have been broken here. NASA already has the perfect storm on its hands with ESAS.

  • anonymous

    Mr. Foust’s title is right. This is a growing (metastizing) distraction from issues of real importance at NASA, including the aforementioned global warming coverup; an Orion vehicle that even astronaut John Young says is overweight; and a costly Ares I/Orion system that has driven a five-year gap in U.S. human space flight, has pushed the hardware for a human lunar return over the horizon, and has forced the cancellation of every other VSE element.

    I’d love to see Griffin and the Bush Administration move on as much as anyone at this point. But the destruction of some VHS tapes where an agency head expresses support to employees for the agency’s IG is not a matter worthy of Congressional investigation, especially in comparison to these other problems.

    I can only hope that the referral to Justice will end the distraction in the House for now so that they can get back to the job of actually governing the nation’s civil space program.

  • D. Messier

    So, what exactly is Bush doing about these problems you mentioned, Mr. Anonymous? I can’t remember the last time he mentioned this program publicly. He seems to have spent more time with the Queen of England recently than he has supporting his own initiiative. If things are as dire as you say, he’s got to step up. Do you see any evidence he’s doing so, publicly or pivately?

    You know how stubborn Bush is about most things. The more people tell him he should do something, the more he resists even if the suggestions are completely reasonable. Congressional pressure might have the opposite effect in that it would force him to admit things are fraked up and that he’s partly responsible. It usually takes a disaster (like a New Orleans being underwater or losing control of Congress) to get him to do that. Look how long it took him to fire Rummy.

    As I’ve mentioned before, Democrats probably view the IG and global warming issues as indicative of the way Bush has mismanged the government, so they see oversight is appopriate. The destruction of the records only adds to their concerns.

    The other factor is that Congressmen have seen what happens when there’s a fear of speaking up within NASA. Spacecraft slam into Mars. Space shuttles explode and rain down debris and bodies over Texas. There are gaps in human spaceflight that last for years.

    When Bush steps up, meets Congress halfway on issues that it cares about (global warming and science), and gives the agency an adequate budget, this may be all you get. It’s sad. The larger problems will fester for the next 20 months and someone else will have to deal with them.

  • anonymous

    “I can’t remember the last time he mentioned this program publicly.”

    And he shouldn’t. After the VSE was rolled out, it benefitted neither NASA nor the White House to have the POTUS continue to talk about it. If the VSE became too closely associated with POTUS, it would have soured the Democrats, polarized a traditionally non-partisan issue (civil space exploration), and led to unnecessary funding battles.

    And it wouldn’t have done the POTUS any good to closely associate himself with the VSE or NASA either. Civil space exploration is not a partisan issue that motivates the Republican (or Democratic) voting base. In fact, the POTUS would have just run the risk of getting labelled the “Moonie President” or some such nonsense for his efforts.

    With the Democrats now in power and the White House now weak, this strategy is even more relevant today. As much as we space cadets want to hear how our President supports our NASA programs, it’s really not necessary to get an initiative started and the budgets funded in Congress. In fact, it would do more harm than good.

    “Do you see any evidence he’s doing so, publicly or pivately?”

    Since the VSE was rolled out and the initial budget passed, there have been two problems with the White House:

    1) The White House has not met its funding commitments as laid out in the VSE budget. This is a much stronger indicator of the President’s support (or lack thereof) for the VSE and NASA than anything he says (or does not say) publicly.

    2) Oversight on NASA and Griffin is largely absent at the White House. Back in Goldin’s day, some pretty lowly but highly effective OMB and OSTP staffers kept NASA on a short leash towards the end of the Clinton Administration and the beginning of the Bush Administration. Things like reigning back in the $5 billion ISS overrun with the cancellation of the Hab Module and CRV (which finally led to the firing of Abbey), forcing the ancestor of today’s COTS program onto NASA, the decision to fund twin Mars rovers, the STAS studies that led to SLI after the X-33 debacle, and more are directly due to their efforts. I don’t see anything like that out of today’s White House staff (which are a different group). They appear to rubberstamp Griffin’s risky budget plans and painful program cuts with no real critical thinking or pushback. They appear incapable of or unwilling to push NASA to fund even small but important efforts like prizes, suborbital services, and independent studies as a check on ESAS.

    The former problem is a function of much larger, and largely unavoidable, issues with the federal budget. As time continues to march forward, the federal budget will face increasingly unfavorable demographics in our country and I think NASA will get pinched no matter who is in the White House.

    But the latter problem is a function of individuals and personalities. The current White House crop of staffers, as least as they relate to NASA, is just not an effective one. When O’Keefe left OMB for NASA, I think some good folks on the White House staff came with him, and the Bush White House has just had trouble attracting similar talent since. Hopefully that will change with the new White House.

    My 2 cents… FWIW.

  • To tell you the truth, I can’t remember a SINGLE time George Bush has mentioned the Vision for Space Explorations (VSE) after the initial speech. If anyone has a record of it, I would like to know about it.

  • D. Messier

    Well, if Bush launches the signature space initiative of his presidency and is reluctant to mention it publicly for fear of being criticized, then that’s a significant problem. This is a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar project that will carry over through multiple administrations. If it doesn’t have public support, it won’t get very far.

    As you mentioned, Bush hasn’t been willing to support this properly in private. Inadequate funding. Inadequate oversight. Budgeting that has run up a massive debt. Ineptitude all around.

    He’s in a helluva position now that he’s massively unpopularly (largely his own fault) and a lame duck. But, if the recent war funding vote is any indication (another $120 BILLION just for this year), Bush is stubborn enough that he can get what he wants out of Congress. He could forge a bi-partisan consenus if he really cared.

    A friend of mine who’s pretty knowledgeable about these things once told me that he thought the whole program was largely a publicity stunt to capitalize on the Mars rover landings and make Bush look for the upcoming election. I think that goes too far, but Bush did begin to lose interest once he was re-elected and the initial political benefits faded.

  • anonymous

    “A friend of mine who’s pretty knowledgeable about these things once told me that he thought the whole program was largely a publicity stunt to capitalize on the Mars rover landings and make Bush look for the upcoming election. I think that goes too far”

    That’s too jaded, even for the Bush II White House.

    I want to get rid of the Bushies as much as anyone. But the VSE was an honest attempt by the Bush Administration to fix a very sick NASA human space flight program by: getting rid of Shuttle; undertaking an actual human space exploration effort that is worth the risks of human space flight; sizing and scheduling that effort so that it was budgetarily sustainable; and enhancing its sustainability with a research context (habitable environments beyond Earth), related robotic science missions, and commercial elements. Unfortunately, all that was under O’Keefe and before Griffin and ESAS.

    I understand from folks that were in the room with the POTUS when the plan was presented to him that he got it — that the Moon was to be used as a stepping stone to a multiplicity of other targets (Mars, Martian moons, NEOs, large deep space telescopes requiring human interaction, etc.). Unfortunately, Griffin and ESAS have turned the VSE into an unsustainable, SEI-like effort that appears very unlikely to return humans to the Moon, nevertheless set the stage for other human exploration targets.

    And, as you note, underfunded budget proposals and a lack of oversight from the White House since the VSE’s rollout have not helped. The POTUS doesn’t need to talk about the VSE publicly, but his staff need to ensure that NASA’s implementation plans are budgetarily sound and that White House budget proposals meet prior VSE promises.

    My 2 cents… FWIW…

  • al Fansome

    MESSIER: A friend of mine who’s pretty knowledgeable about these things once told me that he thought the whole program was largely a publicity stunt to capitalize on the Mars rover landings and make Bush look for the upcoming election. I think that goes too far, but Bush did begin to lose interest once he was re-elected and the initial political benefits faded.

    Mr. Messier,

    Could you please expand what you think the “political benefits” were that “faded”? How many votes do you think he got in the 2004 election, considering that he killed the Shuttle?

    I see little or no “political benefits” for VSE. I think Bush thought the VSE was the right thing to do — that the nation had to retire the Shuttle after Columbia. IMO (for what its worth), if it had not been for the Columbia accident, and considering 9/11, Bush may not have invested any real time thinking about space policy, or publicly speaking about it.

    - Al

  • D. Messier

    Political benefit was more general. It showed presidential leadership and vision and capitalized on the recent Mars landings at the start of an election year. These things matter, especially with a political animal like Rove with such a powerful say in things. (According to something I read on some blog, Rove had final say over the plans. That may tell you that jobs and the electoral map had more importance than affordability.)

    Go back and read Dragonfly, you find Bush (the First) announcing the Mir-shuttle program during an election year as a Russian-US summit with little on the agenda loomed. And you also have a pretty dramatic scene in a limo with a NASA advance team member trying to tell Goldin and a WH guy that the Russian space program was in really bad shape and they should proceed cautiously lest they put Americans unnecessarily in harms way. The WH official ripped into him, telling him it was going to get done regardless while Goldin sat silently, doing nothing to defend the poor guy in an untenable situation. This despite the fact that the flights wouldn’t start until weill after the election.

    I didn’t say I agreed with my friend. It may have been a somewhat cynical statement as this person reviewed what was going on with VSE at the time (already bad getting worse almost by the day). I do think it was a serious attempt to deal with an unsustainable shuttle program. But, as with many other things, Bush (aka POTUS or, as some call him, POTATO HEAD) didn’t really think everything through (funding, long-term support, other priorities like the war costs and tax cuts) before launching it. And he’s let things go over the years.

  • Anything that the Bush Administration has done, if you dig into it deep enough there will be a sordid tale to tell. That certainly includes both VSE and ESAS.

  • I agree that, awful a President as Mr. Bush has been (far worse than even I had expected), the VSE was the correct decision at the correct time, and probably the only major decision that this Administration deserves positive credit for. Unfortunately, even though I agree he should keep his mouth shut about it, the Administration has let the VSE drift and the VSE, too, will likely turn into the same kind of disaster that everything else Mr. Bush touches ultimately becomes.

    On the other hand, there is another side to,

    Anonymous: the federal budget will face increasingly unfavorable demographics in our country and I think NASA will get pinched no matter who is in the White House.

    That’s true. However, much as I think the increasing polarization of the nation’s wealth into a smaller and smaller group of hands is bad for the long term future of our Republic, it has resulted in a largish number of individuals who grew up reading Heinlein and now have the wealth to do something about it. Tax and spending policy since the 1970s, by encouraging the ever more rapid development of an aristocracy, probably has greatly reduced the length of time this nation will remain a Republic. However, it has also made possible SpaceX, et al. You win some and you lose some. . . .

    – Donald

  • anonymous

    “That’s true. However, much as I think the increasing polarization of the nation’s wealth into a smaller and smaller group of hands is bad for the long term future of our Republic, it has resulted in a largish number of individuals who grew up reading Heinlein and now have the wealth to do something about it. Tax and spending policy since the 1970s, by encouraging the ever more rapid development of an aristocracy, probably has greatly reduced the length of time this nation will remain a Republic. However, it has also made possible SpaceX, et al. You win some and you lose some. . . .”

    The hippie liberal in me sympathizes with these concerns and hopes dearly that the pendulum will swing the other way after Bush.

    With regards to the source of the wealth of the new spacepreneurs, with the exception of Bigelow, I’d argue that their wealth is more due to the IT revolution and the internet bubble (Bezos, Carmack, Musk, et.) than federal tax policy.

    FWIW…

  • Anonymous: I agree that the private fortunes being spent on spaceflight are, for the most part, self-earned. My point was, for better or worse, it was not taxed away from them before they could “waste” it on spaceflight.

    (A note of clarification: all other things being equal, I think that’s proven a good thing. I’m much more concerned about attempts to overturn the “death taxes.” If you want your Republic or Democracy to last a long time, you need to limit the concentration of wealth and the development of an aristocricy, and I would argue that the best way to do that is make each generation start with a more-or-less equal chance at success — by making the transfer of wealth to the next generation relatively difficult.)

    – Donald

  • D. Messier

    I worry about what the weath gap too. The divide between what executives make and what average workers take home has grown completely out of whack during the last 25 years or so. Oversized salaries, generous perks, ridiculously large stock grants. Even when you run a company into the ground, you can still get out of there with severance packages worth hundreds of millions.

    And it’s still not enough sometimes. Companies implode in accounting scandals, people who are already filthy rich backdate stock options so they can get even richer. Meanwhile, the plebs are often underpaid and have to deal with outsourcing and downward pressures on wages and the loss of health benefits if they get laid off.

    Although the problems have been across the board, the IT sector has suffered a lot of these problems. I’m not meaning to inpune anyone in particular here. Just a general comment.

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