Congress, NASA

NASA FY2008 budget review: reports and studies

[Second in a series.]

The conference report accompanying the FY2008 appropriations bill contains a number of provisions calling on studies, either by NASA or outside agencies, on various areas of concern to Congress:

The conference report states that the House and Senate appropriations committees are concerned that “NASA is not able to anticipate adequately technical problems and project overruns on existing programs, and are especially concerned that new programs, such as Project Constellation, will encounter similar problems.” They are also similarly concerned with the decisionmaking process within NASA to resolve such problems. Thus, the report directs NASA to “establish an ongoing relationship with the National Academy of Sciences for the purpose of providing an independent project review capability using ad hoc committees established under the purview of the Space Studies Board and/or the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board,” with $1 million set aside in the Cross-Agency Support Programs budget for such work. The report adds that the appropriations committees “do not intend to recommend approval of any major program changes unless an independent review by the National Academies concurs with NASA’s proposed course of action.”

The report also explicitly supports efforts to keep Arecibo Observatory in operation, directing NASA “to provide additional funding” for the radio telescope. Part of that interest in Arecibo is rooted in its space radar capability, used to study near Earth objects (NEOs); the report calls on NASA to call on the National Research Council (NRC) to study NEO survey and deflection strategies. An interim report, focused on survey programs, is due in 15 months, while the final report, with “recommendations regarding the optimal approach to developing a deflection capability”, is due in 21 months.

The report also states that NASA should ask the NRC to study the availability of radioisotope power systems, which are needed for planetary missions where solar power is infeasible. Both NASA and the Department of Energy have raised concerns about the availability of plutonium fuel used for such systems, but the report notes that “NASA has curtailed a major part of its technology development for advanced RPS devices.”

Yet another NASA-NRC study request involves a decadal study of life and physical science research in microgravity, to establish priorities for such research planned between 2010 and 2020. The report also calls on NASA to increase spending on “non-exploration” microgravity life and physical sciences research in FY08 by $13.5 million.

There has been a lot of discussion about COTS in the budget, including the cut in funding for the program and language which directs NASA to not make a new award until after the GAO reviews a current protest by Rocketplane Kistler. However, the report also directs the GAO to “perform a full review of COTS program expenditures and management,” although it appears that this study would not itself hold up the COTS program.

Congress is also asking the GAO to study NASA’s plans for the post-shuttle transition, noting the appropriations committees’ concerns “about this immense and unprecedented undertaking of transitioning assets and facilities to another NASA program, for external use, or for disposal, as well as the transitioning of the space shuttle workforce.”

Finally, the report specifically directs the NASA administrator to study “the possibility” of sending the Alpha Magnetic Spectometer (AMS) to the ISS. The report is due to Congress within 30 days “and should include the steps necessary to prepare for such a mission.” The report, though, doesn’t specify that such a mission be a shuttle mission.

30 comments to NASA FY2008 budget review: reports and studies

  • Jerry

    Here we go again narrow minded bean counters directing science research.

    “The conference report states that the House and Senate appropriations committees are concerned that “NASA is not able to anticipate adequately technical problems and project overruns on existing programs, and are especially concerned that new programs, such as Project Constellation, will encounter similar problems.”

    I think they forgot this is rocket science the cutting edge of our engineering and technical sciences. This is were we discover problems and resolve them. What do they think NASA can anticipate everything before it happens? We have set goals let the professionals direct how it gets done.

    “Thus, the report directs NASA to “establish an ongoing relationship with the National Academy of Sciences for the purpose of providing an independent project review capability using ad hoc committees established under the purview of the Space Studies Board and/or the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board,” with $1 million set aside in the Cross-Agency Support Programs budget for such work. The report adds that the appropriations committees “do not intend to recommend approval of any major program changes unless an independent review by the National Academies concurs with NASA’s proposed course of action.”

    Another hurdle for science to get done. Delays cost money! They short NASA $1 billion for 2008 and then micro manage the spending of that! No wonder we can’t get projects done on time or within budget.

    Would you want your employer telling you how to spend your pay?

  • Finite Element

    I think they forgot this is rocket science the cutting edge of our engineering and technical sciences. This is were we discover problems and resolve them. What do they think NASA can anticipate everything before it happens? We have set goals let the professionals direct how it gets done.

    Whoa! Time out there buddy.

    The problems with the Ares I (and indeed, the Ares V) were self evident to anyone with even a minimum of mathematical, scientific and engineering training from DAY 1 – the last week in September of 2005. The fact that this thing has dragged on for over two full years, with the prospect of yet another year, is nothing less than DISGRACEFUL. One of the things rocket science deals with predicting failures before they happen, and even then it is an imperfect science, but this is one failure that any undergraduate engineering student could have predicted, and indeed, many did predict, the moment the architecture was revealed. I suggest that you need to go back and retake all your basic courses in rocket science, several times, preferably, just like the rest of us have. NASA problems for the most part are a result of NOT consulting with the professionals.

    If ESAS and Constellation are the way you think that rocket science should proceed, then I can only suggest that your parents give you a weekly allowance, instead of a blank check.

  • Ray

    “The conference report states that the House and Senate appropriations committees are concerned that “NASA is not able to anticipate adequately technical problems and project overruns on existing programs, and are especially concerned that new programs, such as Project Constellation, will encounter similar problems.”

    Jerry: I think they forgot this is rocket science the cutting edge of our engineering and technical sciences.

    Actually I agree with the conference report on this point. NASA doesn’t have a good record on anticipating technical problems and cost overruns, especially in huge manned and/or rocket launcher programs like Constellation. The past performance in this area alone, setting aside all of the actual issues with Constellation, is enough for me to prefer giving commercial suppliers at least an equal (equally funded) shot.

    I’d like us to get past the idea that it’s near-impossible rocket science. It’s rocket engineering and rocket project management that we need to get a handle on. I don’t see why we’d expect NASA to be a better organization to accomplish this, given the history of the last couple decades.

    I’d rather that NASA not attempt to build rockets that are on the cutting edge of our engineering and technical sciences. Instead, we should be building rockets with lots of margins to improve safety, designability, manageability, and operability. I’d go with this approach even if it means cutting back on requirements – e.g. 2 crew instead of 4 per launch, or lowering payload mass or dimensions per launch.

    Jerry: This is were we discover problems and resolve them. What do they think NASA can anticipate everything before it happens?

    I’d rather there not be lots of problems to discover during development of an operational system. It would be a lot better to use existing, well-understood systems as much as possible in operational programs, lower requirements so there’s enough margin that problems come up less frequently, offload assignments to commercial and international partners so that NASA doesn’t have as much to anticipate in the first place, and, if NASA is going to develop a big system, don’t start it with a quick 3-month study.

    Getting away from Constellation for a moment, this type of problem also frequently happens in other programs (NPOESS, various military programs, Webb telescope, etc). I’d like to see more emphasis on technology development flight programs like New Millenium, again so there are fewer problems to discover on an operational spaceflight.

    I’d also like to see more smaller missions (suborbital, smallsat, etc) to allow more engineers and program managers to learn, and demonstrate, their skills on real projects that are on a scale that is not a disaster when a failure happens. Stern apparently is thinking in similar terms, but I’d be opening up such opportunities on a much bigger scale, even if it means cutting back on or delaying a big missions. This wouldn’t get rid of every overrun or technical surprise, but again it should help reduce their frequency.

  • “Here we go again narrow minded bean counters directing science research.”

    Several points:

    1) They’re not “narrow minded [sic] bean counters”; they’re our elected representatives and their staffs who have a responsibility to taxpayers to see that our dollars are spent efficiently, effectively, and wisely. We (myself included) may not think much of the bunch we’ve got overseeing the civil space program in both the White House and Congress right now, but they do have a responsibility to the voters and taxpayers. It’s not some bean-counting fetish or lack of imagination that drives this reporting language. It’s responsibility to the voter and taxpayer.

    2) For better or worse, Congress is not “directing” anything. Congress is only asking for independent project reviews. This is something that NASA used to do in spades and take very seriously to ensure good program execution, but which NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has stepped back from and even tried to silence as the independent reviews on Ares I and Orion have returned increasingly negative recommendations. When tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake, it’s not unreasonable to ask a department or agency to have some graybeards look over its managers’ shoulders in an official review capacity.

    3) The language is not directed at “science research”. It’s directed at NASA’s large human space flight development programs, which, by and large, are engineering projects with limited current or future science (at least for the foreseeable future). This action is little different from Congress asking for independent reviews of a Corps of Engineers dam building project or Department of Transportation highway construction project. Either NASA and these other deparments and agencies are being smart in how they go about designing, contracting for, and building these engineering projects or not. And if not, Congress has an obligation to find out.

    “I think they forgot this is rocket science the cutting edge of our engineering and technical sciences.”

    For better or worse, nearly all of the technologies involved in Constellation are not at the “cutting edge” of anything. Constellation subsystems and components are almost all derivatives of existing subsystems and components. Although in nearly all cases these subsystems and components are unfortunately having to be expensively redesigned from the ground up, that’s not the same thing as being at the “cutting edge” of engineering (or science).

    It’s important to note that although Constellation lacks much technology risk, its systems do incorporate a large amount of design risk due to the mismatch between their requirements and their technical performance, budget, and schedule. Even with very few new technologies, the lack of adequate (in some cases, any) mass, budget, and schedule margins make it highly questionable whether Ares I/Orion can fly, can fly safely, and can fly on schedule.

    “This is were we discover problems and resolve them.”

    Unfortunately, Constellation and NASA senior management have not been and are still not doing a very good job of that. The recent GAO report on the Ares I project, for example, highlights a set of design and project issues that are increasing (not shrinking) in both number and scope. Constellation and NASA arguably need external help identifying and resolving project issues.

    “What do they think NASA can anticipate everything before it happens? We have set goals let the professionals direct how it gets done.”

    NASA will never be perfect. No organization can be. But that’s the point of an independent review. Even the best professionals screw up from time to time and need a second set of eyes to catch their mistakes and help correct them.

    That’s even more true when an organization is attempting to do something — like build a human-rated space transportation system or return astronauts to the Moon — that it hasn’t done in decades. For nearly all of the Constellation managers, this is the first time they’ve ever done or been involved in a space transportation development project of this magnitude. For many, especially those at the top, this is the first significant development project they’ve ever been involved in. Independent eyes are arguably more critical for NASA human space flight now than since the Shuttle was developed back in the 1970s.

    And when a program is in as much trouble as Constellation is — with unclosed architectures, single-string redundancy in both the capsule and upper stage, other safety measures removed for the sake of mass and performance, articles failing during structural testing, major design reviews getting delayed a half-year at a stretch, and additional design and schedule threats growing rather than shrinking — there’s even more reason to have an independent set of eyes take a look at the decisions being made and recommend alternatives.

    “Another hurdle for science to get done.”

    Again, the Constellation program is not “science”. It’s a set of engineering projects, not a course of lab research, field work, or other observation and modeling of natural phenomena.

    “Delays cost money!”

    If run in parallel and information and decisions properly flowed, there’s no reason for an independent review to cause any significant schedule delays.

    And the reality is that, between the almost $200 million cut to the 2008 budget carryover, the two-year difference between the current J-2X schedule and its likely schedule (per the GAO report), the recent six-month delay to PDR, and the fact that the program was budgeted at only the 65-percent level to start with, Constellation is facing a multi-year delay in the 2015 start for Ares I/Orion operations anyway.

    An independent review that identified some smart alternatives for bringing those schedule threats back to the left would be a very good investment of time right now.

    “They short NASA $1 billion for 2008″

    Incorrect. NASA’s topline budget request was largely met in FY 2008. And Constellation was shorted less than $200 million in carryover. It’s still significant from a schedule point-of-view, but there’s no $1 billion cut anywhere in NASA in FY 2008.

    “and then micro manage the spending of that!”

    Congress (and this is one of the reasons I’m less than impressed with our current NASA oversight) isn’t managing anything. Congress has ordered no changes to the program.

    All they’ve asked for is independent reviews. Until and unless Congress or the White House acts on the recommendations of such a review (or makes other changes to Constellation), there’s no management of any kind, micro- or otherwise, going on above the level of the NASA Administrator.

    “Would you want your employer telling you how to spend your pay?”

    A very bad analogy. Beyond my taxes and certain illegal activities, the U.S. government does not have a right to tell me how to spend my income (even if it came from taxpayers). However, taxpayers, through their elected representatives, have every right to tell NASA how to spend their tax money.

    Employment and budgets at NASA (or anywhere else in the government) are a responsibility, not a right.

    FWIW…

  • “The conference report states that the House and Senate appropriations committees are concerned that ‘NASA is not able to anticipate adequately technical problems and project overruns on existing programs, and are especially concerned that new programs, such as Project Constellation, will encounter similar problems.’ They are also similarly concerned with the decisionmaking process within NASA to resolve such problems.”

    I’d guess that this language has a lot to do with Griffin’s infamous memo from earlier this fall that instructed his Constellation managers to ignore or adopt the recommendations of their independent review boards at their discretion. The memo is here:

    http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=25596

    I’m speculating, but I suspect that the memo created considerable concern among both Congressional and White House staff, and that this language is partly the result — an attempt to reapply externally the internal controls that the NASA Administrator removed from Constellation.

    “Thus, the report directs NASA to ‘establish an ongoing relationship with the National Academy of Sciences for the purpose of providing an independent project review capability using ad hoc committees established under the purview of the Space Studies Board and/or the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board,’ with $1 million set aside in the Cross-Agency Support Programs budget for such work. The report adds that the appropriations committees ‘do not intend to recommend approval of any major program changes unless an independent review by the National Academies concurs with NASA’s proposed course of action.’”

    Although the appropriations committees tried to put some budget decision teeth into this language, the selection of the National Academies for this task and the paltry $1 million budget that is provided are inadequate. The money is not enough, by at least an order of magnitude, to undertake the kind of detailed engineering analyses required to do the job justice. And while the National Academies is good at setting priorities in science research or technology development, the organization is not the right one to develop program or technical alternatives. They need to be backed by a $10 million-plus budget and the technical assistance of an Aerospace Corp. or RAND Corp.

    “… the report calls on NASA to call on the National Research Council (NRC) to study NEO survey and deflection strategies. An interim report, focused on survey programs, is due in 15 months, while the final report, with ‘recommendations regarding the optimal approach to developing a deflection capability’, is due in 21 months.”

    It would be interesting if there were a confluence of events over the next year — between the potential upcoming Mars asteroid strike, this report, and a new White House — that caused significant new action on NEO identification and deflection. Probably not, but it’s fun to speculate.

    “Congress is also asking the GAO to study NASA’s plans for the post-shuttle transition, noting the appropriations committees’ concerns ‘about this immense and unprecedented undertaking of transitioning assets and facilities to another NASA program, for external use, or for disposal, as well as the transitioning of the space shuttle workforce.’”

    Although conflicts between Ares I testing and Shuttle flyout are emerging, NASA has given Shuttle assets and facilities a lot of thought. But the GAO is going to find that NASA doesn’t have much in the way of a detailed plan for the Shuttle workforce. This is an area that needs a lot of attention lest the albatross of unnecessary positions gets hung around the neck of Shuttle’s replacement.

    FWIW…

  • Jerry, I’m 100% with a-space: your “narrow minded bean counters” reveals an attitude that’s not just irrelevant to getting the most out of a public space program, but counter-productive.

    Look: when you’re funding space activity out of your own pocket, or the pockets of investors, then you can get on your high horse and rant about how it’s So Much More Important Than Mere Politicians Could Possibly Appreciate. Until then, space politics — the subject of this website — does matter. And if your starting assumption is contempt for politics and its practitioners, you’re unlikely to have any useful impact on either them or (I hate to break it to you) the large majority of your fellow citizens who aren’t space enthusiasts and do expect Congress to exercise oversight of space programs just like all other government programs.

  • [...] debitrice a Jeff Foust, il curatore di http://www.spacepolitics.com per essersi preso la briga di spulciare il rapporto che accompagna la “finanziaria” USA per il 2008 relativamente alla parte che riguarda la [...]

  • gm

    it’s absolutely inevitable to avoid the NASA budget to grow, grow, grow and grow, if the spend $3 billion to have in 2011 a thing they ALREADY have NOW at ZERO costs: http://www.ghostnasa.com/posts/018srb5nonsense.html

  • MarkWhittington

    As a rule I would tend to agree that Congressional oversight is valid and necessary. But some skepticism is also warrented, considering the poor record Congress has for doing such with large scale space projects, often making matters worse by imposing mandates based solely on political considerations.

  • “… considering the poor record Congress has for doing such with large scale space projects, often making matters worse by imposing mandates based solely on political considerations.”

    Like what, specifically? What purely politically motivated mandates has Congress imposed on NASA’s larger projects?

  • What purely politically motivated mandates has Congress imposed on NASA’s larger projects?

    Off the top of my head, the only examples I can think of are the requirements for the Shuttle, and the location of ISS (to accommodate the Russians). Mark’s bizarre theory certainly doesn’t explain the X-33 or X-34 disasters. Or indeed, ESAS. But then, we’re talking about Mark…

  • GuessWho

    “What purely politically motivated mandates has Congress imposed on NASA’s larger projects?”

    While I can’t say it was for purely political reasons……

    It is hard to explain based upon sound technical or management performance why NASA MSFC continues to be placed in charge of large dollar, high profile space transportation programs given their past performance. Failures such as Shuttle C (1987-1991), Shuttle B (1991-1995), X-Vehicles (1996-2001), SLI (2001-2003), OSP (2003-2004), and now ARES (which is already underperforming at the paper design stage). One has to believe that political reasons are in large part responsible for sinking a few additional billions of dollars down the MSFC rat hole. These same politics (could likely) also explain why NASA and MSFC are so reluctant to go down the EELV path. EELV was developed wholly independent of MSFC and shows that this organization (at least that portion which focuses on launch vehicles) is unnecessary and incompetent. Rand does not fault politics for X33/X34, yet the industry partner for X33 (Lockheed) was highly successful on EELV. The difference? The Government partner agency, NASA, and more specifically, MSFC.

    Just my $0.02.

  • Vladislaw

    Wasn’t it Boeing that got the inflatable habitat, transhab, killed through congress and congress forbid nasa to follow that technology trail and stay with the metal cans? Leading to Bigelow buying the technology because nasa would not pursue it?

  • GuessWho

    Upon further reflection, one could make the argument that the NASA manned space program as a whole was created for purely (or as close that definition as possible) political purposes. That would also explain why repeated failure to produce a useful product is tolerated. Unlike DoD, the NASA manned space program has no critical national need. If they fail to produce a new launch vehicle to increase performance capability, there are no warfighters in the field who may die as a result, there are no national security ramifications that result if they fail to meet a mission goal by a specified time. Is DoD perfect? Not by a long shot. But they do maintain parallel capabilities so if one path fails, there is a backup. It may not be as efficient, it may not be as cost effective, but the job is done. While it is hard to paint any decision as a purely political one, maintenance of NASA’s manned space program is certainly heavily tilted in that direction.

    Again, just my $0.02. (Not purely political, but heavily tilted that way)

  • Vladislaw

    Has anyone seen this, http://nasaproblems.com for privatizing the shuttle?

  • GuessWho: I won’t dispute your “useful product” opinion here — though I think it’s wrong — but it is worth noting that every NASA project of every stripe is executed for political purposes first, and any other reasons second. As long as taxpayer money is involved, that will, and should, remain true. This is no less true of, say, automated missions to Mars — which are funded to the tune of billions of dollars because they benefit scientists and engineers in Congressional districts and scratch the “American Myth” of the eternal frontier — than it is for, say, flying out the Shuttle — which is funded for many of the same reasons.

    – Donald

  • gm

    maybe… the nasaproblems’ author has read these articles:
    www + gaetanomarano.it/articles/015safeShuttle.html
    www + gaetanomarano.it/spaceShuttle/spaceshuttle.html
    www + gaetanomarano.it/articles/026shuttleorion.html
    however, the Space Shuttles are VERY complex to manage
    that’s why I think it will be NOT easy for privates to build and
    launch a new shuttle, as explained in shuttle point of this article:
    www + gaetanomarano.it/articles/018empLaw.html

  • Vladislaw

    gaetanomarano, for some insane reason, I find it highly doubtful they read your articles and subsequently based their arguements on them.

  • GuessWho

    “… As long as taxpayer money is involved, that will, and should, remain true….”.

    This is a very broad sweeping argument and one I am not willing to debate since it would apply to all Government spending since it is tax-payer funded.

    “This is no less true of, say, automated missions to Mars — which are funded to the tune of billions of dollars because they benefit scientists and engineers in Congressional districts…”

    By default, any monies spent by the U.S. Government benefit people within Congressional districts thus this argument is more of an umbrella statement that not a useful point to debate.

    Yes, taken in whole, there have been a few billions of dollars spent on automated missions to Mars. Many of these are Mars Scout class missions that are capped below $500M (not that spending caps have meant a whole lot). And there have been some larger funded missions (MRO and MSL for example) that are more like small flagship missions. So what? These missions, along with others in the vein of Discovery, New Frontiers, SMEX, etc. return real scientific data. And yes its value is probably more appreciated by the scientific community but what has manned space flight returned of late? What stunning data have the ISS crew returned? Other than when it suffers a major failure, when does manned space flight make the headlines? As a U.S. taxpayer, I am not impressed nor excited about what NASA is doing in manned space. As a space exploration supporter with that opinion, NASA should be worried, if I am in any representative of the general community.

  • GuessWho: (Okay, I give, who?) So what?

    Congress is not funding Mars missions at any price for the scientific results. Whatever they say for public consumption, it is a safe bet that there is just this side of nobody in Congress who gives a damn about Mars science, certainly to the tune of $500 million (Scout), let alone $3-5 Billion (sample return). They are funded for other — political — reasons, some of which I indicated in my prior post.

    What stunning data have the ISS crew returned?

    That one’s easy — though I don’t expect you to buy it — how to build large and complex structures in the microgravity environment that, outside of Earth’s special case environment, dominates the Universe. This and other skills being learned or on, or given incentive by, the Space Station (e.g., how to grow plants and COTS, respectively) will prove of far greater long-term impact to humanity than any scientific results returned from Mars or anywhere else. Mars will always be there. Unless we learn how to conduct operations and live and work in space, we may not be.

    – Donald

  • Rand does not fault politics for X33/X34, yet the industry partner for X33 (Lockheed) was highly successful on EELV. The difference? The Government partner agency, NASA, and more specifically, MSFC.

    You’re defining with too broad a brush what is “politics.” The issue under discussion was whether or not Congress was meddling with designs, not whether or not programs were being steered to incompetent NASA centers.

    That one’s easy — though I don’t expect you to buy it — how to build large and complex structures in the microgravity environment that, outside of Earth’s special case environment, dominates the Universe.

    Actually, like the Shuttle, I think we learned a lot more about how not to do it. Of course, it’s just another example of the old saying: there’s no such thing as a thing completely useless–it can always serve as a bad example.

  • Al Fansome

    I agree with Rand.

    There is an old truism — that you learn more from your failures, than by your successes.

    In that light, we have learned a lot from the ISS and Space Shuttle programs.

    Inherently, I don’t have a problem with failing. Lots of quick experiments, and failures, and then quickly trying again is a very good way to approach a new frontier and a new industry.

    I do have a problem with each failed experiment taking many tens-of-billions of dollars, and several decades, before trying again.

    I do have a problem with NOT learning from our failures; and repeating what we already have attempted (and failed) to do.

    - Al

  • “Congress is not funding Mars missions at any price for the scientific results… They are funded for other — political — reasons, some of which I indicated in my prior post.”

    I disagree. When it comes to Mikulski and many Goddard missions, that may be true. But the California delegation is not nearly as active on JPL’s behalf, not by a longshot, and that’s where most Mars Program dollars get spent.

    The Mars Program is funded, like many basic research programs, because the White House and Congress buy into Vannevar Bush’s argument about the open-ended and unknowable value of that research and because the relevant science communities identify Mars as a top priority among competing priorities in the same disciplines.

    “This and other skills being learned or on, or given incentive by, the Space Station (e.g., how to grow plants and COTS, respectively) will prove of far greater long-term impact to humanity than any scientific results returned from Mars or anywhere else.”

    It depends on what’s found at Mars, but if what we think is there with respect to primitive, non-terrestrial life does in fact exist, that discovery would be much more profound than anything done on ISS or the COTS program. (And I’m a big COTS fan.) It would revolutionize biology, not to mention the impacts to philosophy and religion. It would be to our understanding of life in the universe, its origins, and our relationship to it, what Kepler/Copernicus/Galileo were to our understanding of the structure of our solar system and universe and the place of our home planet within it.

    My 2 cents… FWIW…

  • Rand and Al: Actually, like the Shuttle, I think we learned a lot more about how not to do it. Of course, it’s just another example of the old saying: there’s no such thing as a thing completely useless–it can always serve as a bad example.

    I would agree with this politically, but not technically. First of all, if you set aside launch vehicle issues, the actual construction of the Space Station has gone quite well. Even with the array joint problems, there have been far fewer issues than I really expected. Frankly, I am stunned that we got this far without anyone getting killed. . . .

    More importantly, no matter how large your modules, at some level you will need to do construction in microgravity if you are going to have an exploratory or industrial future there. I have argued before that I think the development of large launch vehicles, rather than using the EELVs or their equivallent, actually sets us back in the long term by delaying the lessons needed to really operate confidently in microgravity. (In this sense, the Shuttle’s relatively small payload bay may prove an unintended benefit.) While “doing as much as possible on the ground” is cheaper and safer and more reliable in the short term, in the long term our goals should be to “keep it small and cheap” and to “do as much as possible in space.”

    Anonymous: The Mars Program is funded, like many basic research programs, because the White House and Congress buy into Vannevar Bush’s argument about the open-ended and unknowable value of that research . . .

    This may well be true, but probably not to the level of the amount of money being spent. I think the American “frontier” myth, and the idea that automated missions to Mars have long-term utility in human exploration, have far more influence.

    . . . and because the relevant science communities identify Mars as a top priority among competing priorities in the same disciplines.

    The key word, here, is “relevant.” Why do we spend all these zillions exploring space (however we do it) when medical research costs less and has more immediately relevant results? We aren’t spending $1 billion determining whether, at some undetermined date in the past, there may have been standing water on Mars solely because “Mars as a top priority among competing priorities in the same disciplines.” That may be true for planetary scientists, but it’s a safe bet that it is not true amongst scientsts at large.

    if what we think is there with respect to primitive, non-terrestrial life does in fact exist, that discovery would be much more profound than anything done on ISS or the COTS program

    I agree with this as far as it goes. However, while it is just possible, if unlikely, that we could make that discovery with automated spacecraft, there is zero chance that we will understand the detailed history and evolution of any life on Mars, or rule it out, without the skills we are learning (however inefficiently) on the Space Station.

    – Donald

  • “The key word, here, is ‘relevant.’ Why do we spend all these zillions exploring space (however we do it) when medical research costs less and has more immediately relevant results?”

    Because humans and society at large have needs that go beyond immediate survival. We are a species curious about more than our anatomy, and to guide how we spend the endowment we’ve allotted to satisfying our curiousity, we look to the experts in the relevant fields. That’s the common sense rationale.

    The policy rationale that Vannevar Bush made at the conclusion of WWII, the Manhattan Project, and other wartime advances that had their origins in the universities decades earlier was that, properly supported and given adequate rein pursue subjects of interest defined by the experts, the satisfaction of scientific curiosity pays outsized dividends to the taxpayer.

    Regardless of rationale — whether we’re just satisfying our innate curiousity or planting the deep seeds for our future American (or worldwide) technological civilization — we come back to the experts in the relevant fields to determine what the key questions are in those fields and what activities are best suited to answering those questions.

    “We aren’t spending $1 billion determining whether, at some undetermined date in the past, there may have been standing water on Mars solely because “Mars as a top priority among competing priorities in the same disciplines.”

    Partly, yes, we are spending about $600 million per year (not $1 billion) on the Mars Exploration Program because Mars arguably ranks as the highest priority target — for a variety of reasons related to its similarities to Earth, past and potential future habitability, proximity, etc. — for the planetary science community.

    The U.S. spends about $4 billion per year on NASA space science, $200 million on NSF astronomy, and smaller amounts in other departments and agencies trying to satisfy our curiousity about the universe beyond Earth. How that money gets allocated to specific missions and projects is driven largely by the rank ordering and recommendations of decadal reviews carried out by panels of experts convened by the National Academies. Although Congressmen do sometimes step up for parochial reasons to protect a mission once it has been selected, assigned, or contracted, by and large, these investments are decided on the basis of their scientific priority and return, not parochial politics or vote-buying jobs. (Thankfully…)

    I’ll be the first to admit that there are exceptions to this norm, Mikulski and Stern’s Pluto mission and whatever lunar lander Cramer is slowly earmarking for MSFC being the two most egregious circumventions of the prioritization process in recent memory. But they are only a couple exceptions out of dozens of missions and projects. Hopefully, they will stay that way.

    “However, while it is just possible, if unlikely, that we could make that discovery with automated spacecraft, there is zero chance that we will understand the detailed history and evolution of any life on Mars, or rule it out, without the skills we are learning (however inefficiently) on the Space Station.”

    Not to rehash old arguments, but this blanket statement depends highly on the timeframe. Today and for the next couple, maybe few, decades, I think it holds true. But given Moore’s Law and other accelerating forces in computing, communications, intelligence, virtual reality, etc., I would not trust that argument out beyond the 2020 or so timeframe. Even with a highly efficient and well-funded human space exploration program, the burdens that the human body imposes are very steep, especially when compared to the advantages of silicon and photons.

    And, as I’ve said before, that doesn’t mean that a human space exploration program is not worthy of funding (and lots of argument over the right way to implement it). But it’s very difficult to justify on a scientific basis.

    At least in my opinion… FWIW…

  • Anonymous: We are arguing past each other. I don’t dispute that the $4+ billion spent on space science is distributed according what expert scientists see as their highest priorities; I don’t even dispute the way most of that money is spent here and now. It’s the $4 billion that I question. Why do we spend $1+ billion (on the MERs) or $600 million per year on Mars, when, say, Antarctica beacons and has far more immediate impact? We do that because of history (the high priority accorded to space science as part of the prep for the Apollo program) and because of the frontier myths I mentioned above. If all scientists across discipline were poled, I think you’d find that most think far more is spent on space science than is warranted. (True, this would be a biased result, in the same way that space scientists think the Space Station budget would better be spent on their projects, but, again, these decisions are not made for largely scientific reasons, and rightly so since science is not, never has been, and probably shouldn’t be the primary reason that people explore.)

    Today and for the next couple, maybe few, decades, I think it holds true. But given Moore’s Law and other accelerating forces in computing, communications, intelligence, virtual reality, etc.,

    There is something I don’t understand about the majority opinion here, which maybe you can illucidate for me. You tacitly assume that there will be dramatic improvements in the practical application of computing power in the future, but at the same time assume that there will be no comparable improvement in human skills in space. This makes no sense and is almost certainly wrong. Compare what is being done on the Space Station today with what we did on Skylab.

    (I think it is easy to make this mistake because we see the dramatic success of getting to Earth’s moon and working in a relatively familiar surface environment in a deep gravity well, and forget that we did very little microgravity work — which is the far more alien, and therefore difficult, task we are learning now.)

    Even with a highly efficient and well-funded human space exploration program, the burdens that the human body imposes are very steep, especially when compared to the advantages of silicon and photons.

    I still believe that the likely future successes in automation will prove vastly over-estimated (Moore’s Law only applies to processing speed, and says little about applying that speed either to “thought” (software) or “action” (manipulation). After many decades of work, computers can do wonders of computation, but nobody yet allows robots to execute the relatively simple set of tasks (compared to studying life on Mars) of driving a car in traffic, or even studying Antarctic geology beyond roving the surface. Anyone who has used Word’s grammatical features should know that processing speed has little to do with efficient automation of complex, creative processes, even when they are largely rule based — as science on Mars cannot be by definition (since we do not and cannot know the “rules” until we have a great deal of experience there).

    At the same time that you vastly over-state what robots can do and underestimate the advantages of human operations, I believe you are overestimating the long-term costs of human operations, once we get to the point where we can do them confidently enough to obtain resources (e.g. Oxygen) on the way. Likewise, because of its extreme expense, the Space Shuttle’s unfortunate history has tilted financial expectations far more against a human role in space than a slower, more rational evolution of the existing Apollo infrastructure would have done.

    You advocate studies of all the tradeoffs. I am only advocating that we set aside the Shuttle experience (without forgetting it) and start again from the beginning — look realistically at what human spaceflight really needs to cost (as opposed to what it does cost) and, with reasonable risk taking, what human scientists can do, versus what realistically can be expected out of robotics in the next few decades. While neither of us can prove our case, I think I’m on reasonable ground to argue that the difference is less, and may be far less, than usually assumed. Likewise, the payoff in sending well-equipped scientists on long expeditions is so much higher than sending robots — e.g., a real chance of a real survey of the history of any life on Mars or a real expectation of finding samples of early terrestrial continental crust and fossiles on Earth’s moon — that it is worth foregoing immediate but limited results for a lot of up-front investment.

    While your opinion is the default one, and almost universally accepted, it remains almost certainly wrong — or at the very least an extreme over-simplification.

    – Donald

  • [...] analysis of the bill check out Space Politics: NASA FY2008 budget review: summary, NASA FY2008 budget review: reports and studies, and NASA FY2008 budget review: other provisions. Also check out Space [...]

  • “I don’t dispute that the $4+ billion spent on space science is distributed according what expert scientists see as their highest priorities; I don’t even dispute the way most of that money is spent here and now. It’s the $4 billion that I question. Why do we spend $1+ billion (on the MERs) or $600 million per year on Mars, when, say, Antarctica beacons and has far more immediate impact?”

    I think you’re conflating or confusing two separate issues. You say you’re okay with experts allocating funding amounts within their broad disciplines, and that it’s the overall funding level for the broad discipline (space science) that you question. But then, in the very next sentence, you attack specific mission or program funding allocations (MERS or the MEP line) and compare them to another specific funding allocation (Antartic research) that lies outside the broad discipline.

    I’m going to assume that you are in fact okay with the specific funding allocation issue — that you are okay with the Decadal Review process and the fact that it ranks certain targets (like Mars) and/or missions (like MERS) high and that their share of the space science budget is correspondingly high.

    On the issue of overall funding, I’d refer you back to my prior post. Again, the reality is that the human animal, for better or worse, is curious about the universe beyond Earth. Medical science or Antarctic research, as critical as they may be for our health or the health of our planet, do not bear on questions about where the universe and our homeworld come from, where it’s all headed on a cosmological scale, whether there are other worlds like ours, and whether we’re unique and alone in the universe. And since the time of Aristotle (and probably earlier, witness Stonehenge), human society has allocated some small fraction of its collective wealth towards answering those questions. It may seem to be a stupifyingly simple answer, but we allocate a few billions of dollars to answering astronomical questions because we’re curious monkeys that have always asked these questions and have always allocated similar amounts of our societal wealth to answering them in the only way that we can — by looking up.

    I’d also refer you back to an earlier thread where we had a similar debate, and I produced some budget data from a National Academies study on disciplinary health and figures of merit. That data showed that we do in fact spend considerably larger sums on more pressing research needs (e.g., medical sciences) and comparable amounts in other, more curiousity-driven research areas. I’d also note that the Europeans, when all their ESA and national programs are added up, also spend in neighborhood of a couple billion plus on the space sciences. Despite figuring in the billions, the amount we spend on space science is not as out-of-bounds as it might first appear when we delve into the numbers and comparisons to other research expenditures or other national space science programs are made.

    “We do that because of history (the high priority accorded to space science as part of the prep for the Apollo program)”

    You’ve argued that the overall space science funding level is a product of Apollo legacy. I would argue that the Apollo legacy argument is wrong because it ignores the fact that we’ve been spending resources (whether it’s armies of stone-cutters in prehistoric Britain or the minds of philosophical schools in ancient Greece or the private wealth of the Medicis in Renaissance Italy or taxes to pay for modern observatories) trying to answer astronomical questions since time immemorial. I would also argue that the Apollo legacy argument is wrong because space science funding has actually increased substantially (not remained at legacy levels) in various periods since Apollo (and almost exclusively on the back of initiatives aimed at targets other than the Moon).

    “and because of the frontier myths I mentioned above.”

    This argument confuses exploration of physical frontiers (what’s over the next hill or ocean) with scientific research (what is the structure of the natural world and how does it work). Human space exploration is about the former; space science is about the latter.

    Although it can sometimes deliver scientific data, human space exploration is first and foremost about experience. When it’s not driven by Cold War competition, post-Cold War cooperation, or pork-barrel politics, human space exploration is about seeing what it’s like to be out there, to see if there’s a frontier worth sending more of our species to.

    Conversely, although it can sometimes provide an exploratory experience (what is it like to walk around the surface of Mars), space science is funded first and foremost to provide insights into the workings of nature. For space science (or any scientific field) to be successful, it must provide understanding, not just experience.

    Funding for human space exploration may depend in part on the frontier myth. But even if the frontier myth disappeared tomorrow, space science will still be funded to answer fundamental questions about how nature is structured and works beyond Earth.

    “automated missions to Mars — which are funded to the tune of billions of dollars because they benefit scientists and engineers in Congressional districts”

    You’ve argued that the overall space science funding level is a product of parochial pork-barrel job/vote-buying politics. I would argue that the parochial politics argument is wrong because parochial politics does not determine overall funding levels — it only adds funding for specific projects. Moreover, with very few exceptions, specific missions and projects in the space sciences are selected by representatives of the space science community, not by legislators.

    “If all scientists across discipline were poled, I think you’d find that most think far more is spent on space science than is warranted. ,”

    You’ve argued that scientists in other broad disciplines, like medicine, would not allocate as much funding to space science if they were involved in the prioritization process. I would argue that’s this is a non-sequitor as space science research does not bear on the questions being asked in these other disciplines (and vice versa). It’s like the exploration versus science argument above — they’re activities undertaken for different reasons.

    Again, we as a society fund space science and other astronomical research because we’re curious beings who want to know the answers to questions that can only be satisfied by examining the universe beyond our home planet. That’s why we spend money in this area — not because of some comparative calculation about unrelated spending in medicine or other sciences.

    “True, this would be a biased result, in the same way that space scientists think the Space Station budget would better be spent on their projects,”

    Again, this kind of argument conflates exploration (ISS) with science (space science). They’re not the same thing, and they serve different purposes — experience (exploration) versus understanding (science).

    “science is not, never has been, and probably shouldn’t be the primary reason that people explore”

    Here, I think we may be coming into violent agreement — that science and exploration are two distinct activities undertaken for different purposes. I would just add that the converse to your statement also holds true — that exploration is not, never has been, and probably shouldn’t be the primary reason that we conduct scientific research. If it is, then we’ve failed at doing science.

    I’ll take another whack at the humans versus robots issue in a separate post, later tonight or tomorrow, and I think this last point will bear heavily in my argument.

    FWIW…

  • Anonymous: I agree with you about our violent agreement, for the most part. I disagree with very little you stated above. However, Again, this kind of argument conflates exploration (ISS) with science (space science). That is probably true, as we do them today; my basic argument boils down (in part) that they should be much more similar than they are today. In essense, you would do better science, and probably more per unit dollar spent, and especially in the long term, if you used the techniques we’re developing on the ISS to do that science. Space science as we do it today, and human exploration, address different scientific questions, but the fundamental questions we want to answer (by building megaliths in prehistoric Europe or by sending giant rockets to the moon) — are we alone? what is our earliest history? how did the Solar System form? — are all best answered by sending human expeditions onto the surfaces of the accessible planets over time. That is science, every bit as much as an atmospheric probe of Jupiter or a rover on Mars or a flyby of Pluto that can provide small pieces of the next set of questions, but have zero chance of providing conprehensive answers. If we want to know if there was standing water on Mars, a rover is probably appropriate. But, if we want to know the history of any life on Mars, or rule it out, no rover or set of rovers can answer that question. Nor, can a single human mission. Only a comprensive program to explore Mars with Louis and Clark-class expeditions with the kind of detail that Darwin used to explore this world can provide an initial take at those answers.

    By defining an automated mission as “science” and a human expedition like Apollo (which actually provided far more answers than any related set of automated missions to date) as “non-science,” you are failing to fully appreciate either, and you are doing neither activity any favors.

    The automated exploration of the Solar System is extremely valuable and it provides a large amount of data. But it will not and cannot provide the “understanding” (to use your term) that a geologist (or biologist) strolling through Valles Marineris with a hammer (or a microscope and a chemistry lab) and her mind can provide just by being there. That is science, at least as much (and I would argue far more than) anything we are doing today.

    It is this confusion, of defining one technique as “science” and another as “[non-science] exploration” that results in our spending such vast sums on “science” that cannot answer our fundamental questions — or scratch much most of our exploration, commercial, and artistic itches, which are some of the other reasons we explore.

    – Donald

  • One clarification to the above argument. I agree that the Space Station is not doing a whole lot of science today (although it is doing more than most people recognize, especially if you define science to include practical biology and engineering, etc.), and it may never do a lot of science. But, the Space Station project is developing the skill set that will eventually allow us to do full-scale scientific expeditions to the other planets, comparable to what has been done on our own planet. That is why it is at least as important, and arguably more so, than many automated missions today, especially those that are not directly in preparation for doing human expeditions and those that are attempting to automate field science — that is, many of the most expensive ones.

    – Donald

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