Congress, NASA

Differing takes on a GAO report

This afternoon the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a new report on the status of NASA’s Constellation program. That report was requested by Congressman Bart Gordon, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, who issued a press release about the report right after it came out. The GAO report, according to Gordon, demonstrated that Constellation has suffered from funding shortfalls that has hobbled its development.

“[I]t should come as no surprise that funding is at the center of NASA’s inability to complete the work necessary to build confidence in the cost and schedule estimates the agency develops for Constellation,” Gordon says in the press release. He adds: “GAO’s report provides a sobering indication of the negative impact that funding shortfalls can have on complex and technically difficult space flight programs like Constellation, no matter how dedicated and skillful the program’s workforce is.”

The report itself, though, isn’t that clear-cut. “The Constellation program has not yet developed all of the elements of a sound business case needed to justify entry into implementation,” it states. It does cite “cost issues and a poorly phased funding plan” as one problem, but also mentions “significant technical and design challenges” (including, but not limited to, the now-infamous thrust oscillation issue with the Ares 1 first stages), changes to the Constellation test strategy, and changes to acquisition strategy. While some of these other issues are linked to cost and funding issues, the GAO report isn’t blaming all of Constellation’s tribulations on “funding shortfalls”, as Gordon put it.

(A tangent: the Orlando Sentinel reported late Thursday that while the Ares 1 first stage motor test generated less vibration than expected, claims that it eliminated thrust oscillation as a technical concern were “overstated”.)

The GAO report’s recommendation isn’t for additional funding but the development of a sound business case “supported by firm requirements, mature technologies, a preliminary design, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time” before the program proceeds into the implementation phase. (Assuming, of course, that it does survive the current review.) That recommendation is accepted by NASA in a letter from new deputy administrator Lori Garver, who states that the agency is working towards developing that business case.

22 comments to Differing takes on a GAO report

  • Robert Oler

    If Musk makes it into orbit with his Falcon9/Dragon semi boilerplate after less then 1/2 billion and Ares 1 shakes itself to death on the way out to the launch pad (grin) for 8 billion dollars…well the contrast willentertain

    Robert G. Oler

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  • mike shupp

    I’m a bit puzzled. There’s no real prospect of actual investors making real (taxable) money off the Constellation program, no matter how successful it turns out to be, as far as I can tell. And if Constellation were an actual commercial project, making money would probably depend as much on the successful development of the program towards achieving various goals (claiming large chunks of the moon, let’s say) and subsequent schemes for marketing some lunar-related goods a/o services. Which seems a pretty far cry from a government R&D program.

    So what precisely does it mean when a government agency is to make “a sound business case” for its actions? Does this have any actual meaning or is it just the sort of pseudo-managerial bullshit you hear folks spouting whenever low-level white collar fools are getting smashed?

  • Green eye shades

    “There’s no real prospect of actual investors making real (taxable) money off the Constellation program, no matter how successful it turns out to be, as far as I can tell. ”

    Let me explain. The Apollo program fueled an entire space industry that echoes even today. Great companies like W.L. Gore (Goretex), were spun out of this engine.

    By the same token, billions of dollars spent on Constellation to-date are obligated on fee bearing contracts to for-profit companies whose stockholders (investors) are expecting, and to-date, making (taxable) money. From the companies that churn out designs and analyses, to those who make Ares I-X patches, to those building the A3 test stand in Mississippi, to those reworking the launch complex at Cape Canaveral.

    Plenty of companies are making money off of this program. There are charts showing how the money finds its way into for-profit companies in almost every state in this great nation.

    I also find it ironic that federal government should be asked to make a “business” case, as if it were a for-profit organization. It is not. I think the case has to be made for national interest or national security, but the government is NOT a business. The rule sets for driving and operating a business and government are COMPLETELY different.

  • Robert Oler

    This is my favorite line

    “- significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, ”

    “hitting the launch tower”? After 9 billion dollars?

    what?

    Robert G. Oler

  • There’s nothing wrong with NASA attempting to develop a more powerful ( 5 segment) solid rocket booster. But trying to actually launch humans on top of a solid rocket boosters was a very risky concept right from the start. Its time to end the Ares 1 program and quickly move in the direction of the SD-HLV!

  • So $8 billion has been spent already on Ares I/Orion, and the current estimate is $49 billion total. I thought six months ago the estimate was $41 billion. It looks like the estimate is growing faster than they can spend the money! I think that’s what the GAO must mean by “not closing the business case”!

    Congressmen like Bart Gordon really have no shame. How can anyone seriously advocate a program that is going to cost (at least) $49 billion dollars just to develop a vehicle that can get four people into LEO? Whatever the extra “risks” of commercial, whatever the technical “advantages” of Orion, they can’t possibly justify the price tag. Do you think SpaceX, or Orbital, or Boeing, or JAXA, or ISRO, or even ESA would have to spend anything like $49 billion to put four people in Earth orbit? It staggers the imagination. The Constellation architecture is broken because the price is outrageous.

  • mike shupp

    Green Eye Shades:

    So we’re talking about baseball, demanding that it justify itself in terms that football fans understand. Uh….. this isn’t sane.

  • Major Tom

    If you don’t have time to read the GAO report, this Orlando Sentinel article is worth scanning.

    http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/space/orl-gao-audits-constellation-092509,0,4073813.story

    Among other sad revelations that the Sentinel found in the GAO report:

    “… because the program’s risk-management system warned that Ares I might not be able to meet its March 2015 maiden launch date to the space station, NASA managers stopped work on systems the program would need to go to the moon. Instead, they focused on building a rocket and capsule suited only to ferrying astronauts to the space station — a move many engineers say results in a very expensive trip to low Earth orbit.”

    “… the report cited NASA’s Integrated Risk Management Application, or IRMA, which is how the agency tracks technical challenges. ‘As of June 9, 2009,’ it said, ‘IRMA was tracking 464 risks for Ares I and Orion.’ Of these, over 200 were listed as ‘high’ risks — nearly double the total identified by the previous GAO audit in April 2008. Each could have ‘major effects on system cost, schedule, performance, or safety,’ the GAO said.”

    “The risks include: Ongoing concerns about the rocket violently shaking during its ascent to orbit and uncertainty over whether a proposed system of shock absorbers to counteract the vibrations will work… Concerns about design of a second-stage fuel tank, which calls for a bulkhead to separate liquid-hydrogen and liquid-oxygen fuel within the same tank… Difficulties in developing a launch-abort system powerful enough to pull the Orion capsule away from the speeding Ares rocket in an emergency.”

    “The GAO said it found the cost of Constellation’s developmental contracts have risen from $7.2 billion in 2007 to $10.2 billion in June 2009 as NASA sought to resolve technical and design challenges.”

    “… auditors found that NASA authorized contractors to begin work before reaching final agreement on contract terms. Such work is called ‘undefinitized.’ By allowing undefinitized contract actions to continue for extended periods, NASA loses its ability to monitor contractor performance” or project remaining costs, the report said. One such contract was allowed to drag on like this for 13 months.”

    Even sadder is that the GAO report paints only part of the technical picture:

    Ares I’s lift capabilities are still shrinking, further reducing Orion’s margins, and keeping elements of the design, like its parachute design and volume allocation, up in the air. See:

    http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2009/09/constellation-outlines-parachute-upgrades-orion/

    There are also multiple USAF and NASA analyses warning that Ares I deflagration will likely destroy Orion and kill the crew in the event of a launch failure or termination. See:

    http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/breakingnews/orl-ares-rocket-not-safe-091409,0,5934002.story

    Finally, even the Ares I-X test is likely to be delayed again, as the vehicle lacks rigidity for rollout. See:

    http://rocketsandsuch.blogspot.com/2009/09/stick-in-mud.html

    FWIW…

  • Robert Oler

    totally o/t

    http://www.spaceflightnow.com/delta/d344/gallery/index.html

    great pictures and hard to believe somewhere there is Thor!

    Robert G. Oler

  • Bob Steinke

    The phrase “business case” is a poor choice of words because NASA’s goal isn’t to make money. However, its not totally pseudo-managerial bullshit. They are looking for NASA to explain:

    1) what are the goals
    2) what is the plan of action
    3) does the plan achieve the goals
    4) is the plan executable within resource constraints

    This is exactly what a business case answeres for a for-profit company. NASA has done a bad job of answering these questions.

  • mike shupp

    Bob Steinke :

    That’s a very decent answer. Thank you.

  • Green eye shades

    ” Do you think SpaceX, or Orbital, or Boeing, or JAXA, or ISRO, or even ESA would have to spend anything like $49 billion to put four people in Earth orbit? It staggers the imagination. ”

    Actually, Boeing (or rather the Johnson Space Center) did JUST THAT with the International Space Station!…and its STILL not finished.

    Silly rabbit, any contractor would do that given the opportunity. It is simply a law of nature (or economics) that any for profit company is out to do anything but make money? “How much ya’ got?” will be the answer from any of them if they corner the market. It’s the way of the capitalist.

  • The reference to Boeing was with respect to their recent proposed collaboration with Bigelow on commercial crew transport. Still, I think we’re not disagreeing. It is NASA’s fault that Constellation is expensive. Boeing will go either way. Hire me for a cost plus boondoggle using a government design, or let me compete for a fixed price, fee for service contract.

  • mike shupp

    Bill Hensley — I work in the construction business. We do a lot of work for government contractors, about half for “time and materials” (your basic cost-plus sort of job, albeit usually with a cap) and half for fixed price. The same guys out in the field do the work for both types of job, under the same conditions, under the same set of managers and foremen. Now and then we lose money on fixed price jobs, but generally they’re more profitable than T&M work. They’re what we prefer.

    I’ve got ten years there, and my experience doesn’t match what you predict, in other words. I’d be quite happy to stand up in a court of law and explain myself at greater detail to 12 of my fellow citizens. Would you care to explain your equal confidence?

  • Jim Hillhouse

    Firstly, Robert Block posted a correction to the Orlando Sentinel’s article on the DM-1 test, indicating that comments attributed to Gerstenmaier about the DM-1 test,”Several contractors and NASA employees stated that Gerstenmaier said that the DM-1 test did not disprove thrust oscillation and asked them not to repeat claims that it did. Gerstenmaier said he did not utter the quote attributed to him and never told anyone to withhold information from Congress.” Robert is an honorable professional and I think all of us appreciate it when a journalist comes forward to clarify any potential conflicts between sources.

    And I’m going to take AA Gerstenmaier at this word. Which leaves us with Rominger’s comments that the DM-1 test was quieter than expected and that there’s a chance that the dramatic TO mitigation techniques that have given many the willies may not be needed after all. That is different from a month ago. If further tests confirm that the DM-1 results, I think all of us can breathe a bit easier.

    Engineers don’t work simply off of a static piece of data, the 0th or even 1st differential, but look for trends, the 2nd and higher-order terms, which can be more indicative of what’s to come. The trend-line was reset with DM-1–that’s clear to anyone who made it past a bachelor’s in engineering–and is now the initial condition and the starting point, as actual data must be, for further analysis downstream.

    But where engineers would wipe their brow, be glad for the good news that TO _may_ not be an issue, I wonder if the space advocacy community can do the same? And after such a vitriolic debate up-to-now, can it even do so or are the lines now etched in stone.

  • Mike Shupp:

    I’m not sure what point you were trying to make, or whether we are even in disagreement. The point I was trying to make is that $49 billion is an outrageous amount of money to develop a crew transport capability to ISS. I was not intending to either attack or defend Boeing or any other contractor. What I’m trying to say is that NASA is doing something desperately wrong if they think they need to spend that kind of money for the capability Ares I will deliver. Here’s my original statement:

    Do you think SpaceX, or Orbital, or Boeing, or JAXA, or ISRO, or even ESA would have to spend anything like $49 billion to put four people in Earth orbit? It staggers the imagination. The Constellation architecture is broken because the price is outrageous.

  • Major Tom

    “But where engineers would wipe their brow, be glad for the good news that TO _may_ not be an issue,”

    There’s no “may” about it. Thrust oscillation IS still an issue. The quotes from the ATK VP of testing and research operations in the very article you referenced clearly state that. He said that “more data was needed before any conclusions could be reached about thrust oscillation”, that even “quiet” vibrations can couple to the “the natural frequency of the [whole rocket when assembled]” resulting in “vibrations to the crew that you need to do something about”, and that “people are still projecting that… the frequencies are going to come in close enough that [Ares I is] going to need that mitigation.”

    Please comprehend what you read before you post.

    Sheesh…

  • Observer

    Hey Green,

    In 20 years of watching the GAO gang, I’ve generally found their analyses to be useful and relevant. Actually, I wish they would go even farther than they do, meaning: instead of primarily evaluating the government elements within the entire U.S. (and World) infrastructure, they would assess the entire end-to-end construct of our gov’t, academic and private sectors national systems.

    GAO states that a “business case” is needed. Clearly, when you’re sitting in government, the term “business case” just doesn’t fit. It sounds too “capitalistic”, too “private sector”. It may have been more appropriate for the GAO folks to use the phrase “value proposition” (in my opinion).

    I’ve urged them to use “value proposition”, so readers would not be inclined to attack them – just as a pile of folks have here. The phrase “business case” immediately short-circuits some of the brilliant minds here – leading to thoughts arcing over to “profit”. Heaven forbid that ANYTHING so lofty as space exploration be associated with things that are profitable, ESPECIALLY in government ! Profit is evil ! Profit ties to greed and things like the seven deadly sins! Heaven forbid any activity results in profit ! (In the meantime…everyone is buying lottery tickets, hoping to strike it rich? In the meantime, we all work at jobs to make money and maybe even a tiny bit of ‘surplus’ money – we’ll call it ‘surplus’….avoiding that nasty “profit” word spelled with 4-letters.)

    Of course, we would like value and valuable outcomes and things that are useful or at least interesting, right? Questions linger: Do profitable things tend to also be valuable? If you create value can it be a “free public good” or will it sometimes lead to things that also create profit? Ah, such a struggle.

    The real deal here is – GAO is simply asking for a basis (business case…called … a value proposition) that shows “how value will be created” from space development efforts (Constellation, Orion, Ares, ISS,… the whole kit and kaboodle).

    1. Will the Constellation program and mission and efforts result in outcomes that provide tangible VALUE to the U.S.? to citizens of the U.S.? to taxpayers? to YOU? Yes or No? Can you describe those outcomes, specifically? e.g. – We will explore and settle on the Moon… Ok… let’s discuss the VALUE of doing that. Illumination? Inspiration? What? You tell me.

    2. Will whatever space-focused activities (that are funded by the government) result in outcomes of TANGIBLE VALUE to the United States, to U.S. Citizens, and to the World? Can you demonstrate and illustrate and describe those outcomes? Yes or No? e.g. – Lunar vacation timeshares with Comcast internet installed? Rock-hounding? Lunar Spelunking? A Noranda Mining or Barrick Gold company on the Moon or Mars?

    Forget the “profit vs no-profit” junk. Forget the “greed vs no-greed” junk (which is what some short circuit to when the word ‘profit’ is used. )

    The more appropriate term is “value”. Use it.

    Green: Several more things on your post:

    1. You state: “…the government is NOT a business.”

    True. But then not true. In some respects Gov’t is an enormous BUSINESS. In the U.S., Government is a $4 Trillion Dollar per year business. Granted it takes in tax payer dollars and puts out “public goods”, seemingly for free! But “for free” is a bad joke, isn’t it. None of it is really for free.

    Government is a huge “business”. It controls the private sector, it controls markets – agriculture, health, energy, consumers, behavior, our money, our internet, our phone chats, our water, our sewer, our freedoms and lack of freedoms, our interactions (contracts), and more. This used to be more “governing”; today it extends far beyond governing.

    These days, the government is more and more heavily into BUSINESS… both fractionally and dramatically. The government today has its own Corporations. They are called Federal Corporations. Google away… read about all of them…

    The only catch about government being in business is, it is inherently (by charter and mandate) a socialistic entity that is establishing a corporation. (Don’t think so? Again, Google away… and research how the U.S. Economy is structured today – see how the top economists characterize the U.S. economy – it’s called a “mixed economy”, where Gov’t is the social-istic entity that controls a myriad of capital-istic entities.) So the characterization of “mixed economy” is quite valid.

    So in this “mixed-economy” circumstance, Gov’t becomes a sort of conglomeration of 501(c)3 Non-Profit, Non-Stock entities. Part of Government now functions “as-a-set-of” Corporations (of sorts). Yet with this structure, it is crippled, restricted, bound, in that its outputs must always appear to be “public goods” that are free. Federal Tax Dollars “IN” – Free Public Goods “OUT” What a deal ! eh?

    So, yes, government “should not be a business”, but it must struggle hard to avoid being that, and as we witness in 2009, the slide of government into “running business and being big business” is accelerating at a rather dramatic rate.

    2. You state: “…the rules set for operating a business and government are COMPLETELY different.”

    True Green. In principal anyway.

    An important difference between Government and Business is: By producing “free public goods”, the government lacks substantive “valuation metrics”, the means by which they cannot “measure” how well, how effectively they spend (your) tax dollars.

    Because “public goods” are free, it becomes a nightmare to place a “tangible value” on their worth. How much (in dollars) is free-public housing worth? free education? free legal defense? free clunker exchange? free health care? etc. If it is “Free”, what is any of this worth? A trillion dollars? Nothing? You tell me.

    When a good is “free”, valuation of it becomes exceedingly difficult. Where are the tools, the economic and financial metrics to measure the worth of something that’s free?

    If you go to a yard sale and the seller says “Hey, take whatever you want, it is all free.” Then what is any given item worth? If he happens to have a Gold Bar and you take it, what is it worth to you? Well, if you SELL IT (at around $900 an ounce) suddenly, from the SALE, you have acquired a metric, a measurement of the value of the Gold Bar.

    In Business, products, services and goods that are bought, sold, and exchanged are easily “valued” (a valuation can be secured). Why? Because the transaction is accompanied by a “decision” to buy or not buy, for an amount of money. Every time a product or service sale occurs in the World, a “valuation” of that product or service occurs. Ha! This tool, this outcome, from that “decision” is a powerful and useful metric. Imagine the millions of “buy” decisions and value-exchanges that occur in a single day in the U.S…. in the World. And in every instance that a ‘purchase’ occurs, a ‘valuation’ metrics is also created. The ability to place-a-value on, to “valuate” is one of the most powerful ‘economic tool’ effects of capital-istic infrastructures. It is a valuation tool that social-istic and government entities lack, and suffer greatly from accordingly.

    [ Note: When socialistic governments discover how to rigorously value a 'public goods output', they will (in my observation) have solved one of the greatest chronic limitations they've had, over centuries.]

    [ Note: It is quite positively pathetic to see (that the French Gov't, recently) commented that it considered asiding its attempts to measure its national prosperity as a function of GDP and that it was toying around with the possibility of using a "happiness of the people" metric, to replace the GDP metric. ]

    The message here is: Government, from its structure and its actions to output “public goods” cannot readily determine a worth or value for those goods. Business (the private sector) constantly, daily, secures “valuation” data, every time a sale is made. In summary, the rules by which Governments “disable” their ability to Value Their Operations and the Outputs They Create. So this is an “Economic Tool” problem. A malfunction. A deficiency.

    The inability of government to rigorously determine value is one of the most crippling financial and economic dilemmas it faces. I have not found anyone who has solved this issue to date. The default action taken to address this is tends to be: that government either wishes to or actively chooses to “not measure value at all”. Or, they use highly intangible measurements, such as: how many outreach meetings have we held this year? how many internet hits did we get? how many complaints did we get? etc.

    With respect to space and space exploration, the metrics tend to be: are lots of children excited about space? are more wishing to be astronauts? do citizens exhibit joy and passion when a planetary robot is put in operation? how many hits does the Hubble website get? can we inspire great national pride by sending our 1st Chinese or Afghan or Icelandic astronaut to the Moon?, is our national pride worth $260 Billion dollars to go to Mars for a month? and so on.

    Given these cripplings, should Government simply exempt itself from any “creation of value or worth” when using taxpayers monies?

    Or did you hope or expect that the $ 4 Trillion dollars tax dollars per year would result in at least some sort of outputs that have real utility and value?

    Yes, the rules of Government and Business are different.

    If Government truly and only “governed”, there would be no outputs from Government that had use or value or asset worth, there would simply be laws and rules and regulations. But as we all see, Government today involves itself with FAR more than just regulation and laws. And it does so, lacking critically important valuation tools, tools necessary to measure the return on monies it spends on programs and other business-like activities.

    From my analysis, I believe there is a viable “business case” (I mean value-proposition!) for space exploration, space missions, space business, and the deliberate and surgically precise engagement in and development of space-based operations.

    What is lacking is: very smart, top-level, value-driven business (yeah, I said it “business”) architectures that show how on-orbit and space related pursuits will result in powerful, very tangible, solid and valuable outcomes for individuals, families, and citizens that pay-the-bills for this (taxes) and that will also clearly benefit industry and enable government to perform more effectively.

    For the most part, those architectures have not been created. For the most part, the best architectures, to-date, only address fractional aspects of space (i.e. – things that aid NASA in its mission, things that aid another U.S. agency in its operations, or things that serve to position the U.S. in some leadership position, perceptively).

    Until the principals responsible for architecting the Master Plans decide to embrace the entire end-to-end value chain (one that includes the entire Nation and its people and industry) more comprehensively, the fractional architectures that exist today will result at best in fractional outcomes tomorrow.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    From Green Eye Shades:

    I also find it ironic that federal government should be asked to make a “business” case, as if it were a for-profit organization. It is not. I think the case has to be made for national interest or national security, but the government is NOT a business. The rule sets for driving and operating a business and government are COMPLETELY different.

  • common sense

    @Observer:

    Yes do use value not profit. Goverment should return value to its citizen not profit, not cash. That there’d be a parallel between the way government and business operate fine but that ought to be it. The problem I see with government seen as a business is that eventually businesses will run the government and that is not a good thing.

    However it is not contradictory with business architectures! This is a totally different issue. On this, please note that the “not-a-business-government” may help “business architectures” be created and evolve. I believe that COTS and private space are a step in that direction.

    I don’t like somehow how you keep mixing government and business. They are and MUST be two different things. It does not mean they do not interact.

    Again, and it may be debatable in view of what lobbyists do, but business MUST not run the government. Or you end-up with parochial interests, such and such corporation/business interests being served only. And not necessarily the interests of all the people…

    “With respect to space and space exploration, the metrics tend to be: are lots of children excited about space? are more wishing to be astronauts? do citizens exhibit joy and passion when a planetary robot is put in operation? how many hits does the Hubble website get? can we inspire great national pride by sending our 1st Chinese or Afghan or Icelandic astronaut to the Moon?, is our national pride worth $260 Billion dollars to go to Mars for a month? and so on”

    Precisely why the space business is in chaos. Those metrics just don’t work, not alone anyway. Never have, never will. Pride and prestige are not enough, we need values to be based on the return to the public in its every day life. It can be technical but it does not have to be only technical. Yes sending some foreign astronaut to space may help our foreing policy(ies).

  • Observer

    common sense,

    Good to hear your take on things.

    Regarding your comment on Government in your 1st paragraph:

    I suspect it would be best if Government function primarily to “govern” – in other words to make laws, rules, regulate, perform judicial functions, provide for national security, etc.

    Our forefathers had it right: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure….”

    In this day and age, and through the course of several hundred years as a Nation, things are a bit different. From the activities of government (for better and worse) and the trillions the government spends annually, we’ve wound up as a Nation, owning billions of dollars of valuable and tangible physical assets. For example… billons of dollars worth of high-tech space systems and satellites, imaging systems, sensor systems, ground stations and super computers and more.

    When a government owns billions in hard assets, wouldn’t it seem reasonable and responsible that they work to make sure those assets are USED effectively and efficiently to create value? be useful? return benefit to the Nation and its people?

    If you have a U.S. agency that has a budget of, say, $20 Billion dollars a year, wouldn’t any citizen hope that the $20 Billion would be used to create something of (lasting) value in the end?

    * * *

    I agree with you. For obvious reasons, the Government is best not to create cash and profit. It is (er, should not be, but too much is) not suppose to be a giant government corporation.

    * * *

    I do not particularly agree with the last sentence you have in the 1st paragraph. I don’t think business is inclined to run the government – they are far more interesting in running their businesses and making money. They may act to influence government. They may act to minimize any damages or impacts that government regulation may have (and they may act appropriately… or in excess at times, as we have all seen.)

    Yes, businesses have no business running government. Most real, high end business people have little interest in government. They are more capitalists… and government is inherently less capitalistic and more social-istic (for the reasons I’ve explained above).

    * * *

    I agree with your COTS statement. I may agree with your reasons why as well. Everyone knows, from many decades of experience, that government never runs business more efficiently than the private sector. COTS makes sense, as it is a logical transition of a capability that largely began in the government agency world and that it is now time to get it out of government into the commerical sector. Again, greatly, for efficiency and cost reasons.

    Government ‘can be’ very good at seeding and catalyzing technologies and markets. (One main reason being they can exempt themselves from risk. Another, because they can have tons of capital (or did in years past anyway), e.g. – DARPA, ARPA, and similar innovative entities in Gov’t.

    But there is a time when the front end-capital and technology “seeding” should logically transition into the private sector and the Gov’t should get out of it. It’s very similar to what occurs in the family-unit – - – the parents raise the kids, eventually the kids grow up and leave the home to start their own (the classic separation process).

    * * *

    Yes, I generally agree with your lobbyist comment, above. Generally, in the past 10 or 15 years of my intimate experience in this domain, I’ve seen some very healthy partitioning, limitation, and self-regulation when it comes to lobbying activities and actions. Most of the lobbyist gang is Very seasoned. They know right and wrong and are extremely cautious when it comes to making sure they do not tamper or cross the line into government. Almost neurotically so.

    * * *

    I’m not quite sure of the 4th and 5th paragraphs you put here. (???) So I’ll guess what you’re trying to say…

    I believe that part of the endeavor of space exploration links to very high level purposes. Those purposes revolve around humanity and its existence on the Earth. As a civilization. As humanity. As life, all life on Earth. Exploration becomes a nature, fundamental action and aspect of who we are. But more than that. It is of what we need to pursue to advance and to ensure our continued existence and survival.

    So, exploration, manned spaceflight, Moon and Mars missions, all play into that need… at the proper points in time. You can quickly add other space missions and pursuits into those – including protection from asteroids, research in space physics, etc., heliophysics (CME’s, et al) and the pursuit of critical knowledge regarding Earth, Solar System, and Universe.

    Most likely, at the appropriate time, humans probably NEED to be able to get to Mars. And the Moon. But Mars too. Maybe not tomorrow. But not never either. In time, something catastrophic could go wrong on Earth. So to be smart, truly smart, we should acquire the ability to get to those marginal, but heck who has a better closeby place?, locations.

    Today, generally, civilization is not exactly rich. Face it. 6 going on 7 billion humans on Earth. And the average citizen is simply Not rolling in cash. (Are you?) So for your (Earth) neighborhood to cough up $260 Billion in pocket change to dash off to Mars is surely not the best household budget strategy, now is it?

    Many families are seriously in debt. Nations are seriously in debt. Billions, trillions in debt. Is this a great time to spend $260 Billion for a trip? Now if we were all million and billionaires, I would be 1st in line to grab the pom poms and cheer everyone on with the “Let’s Go To Mars!!!” rally cry. But we aren’t.

    * * *

    The above brings us full circle back to a beginning issue. We, as a people, a Nation, and World, need to take every opportunity to “create value” and “create wealth” using the existing assets we have. We NEED to make ourselves “richer”. “Richer” is not a bad word. It is not an evil thing. Again, if we were all rich and happy and healthy … we wouldn’t need gov’t funds to do any Mars Mission funding. We could just Do It Ourselves for philanthropic fun. Do you agree?

    Frankly, every asset, every tool, every capability, every resource we (meaning citizens, Nation, and gov’t) have, should be pushed to the max, in producing. In producing valuable outputs….that creates revenue, profit, that empowers, enriches, makes wealthy, ends indebtedness, ends poverty, et al.

    * * *

    If the Government spends $100 Billion on something… too often…it becomes a “sunk cost”. They spend it…and it is gone.

    If a private sector firm spends $100 Billion on something and it does NOT create value or revenue and profit…. they go bankrupt. (Well, I suppose the gov’t can come in and bail them out… but let’s not go there, ok?)

    The generally expected and imperative rule in the private sector is: For a given $1000 investment, you MUST get at least a $10,000 cash return, from whatever you spent the $1,000 on. Do that, or die.

    Do you see that rule applied in Gov’t spending?

    * * *

    So now, look at a Gov’t Agency. Take NIH. NIH gets what, $26 Billion per year? Now, can you or anyone in the audience please tell me about how NIH generates $260 Billion in value per year?

    Take NSF at $6 or $8 Billion per year. Again, please tell me the ouputs of NSF that yield $60 Billion in value per year. Take any year and list the outputs. Can you?

    Run through the agencies… EPA, DOE, NOAA, USDA, DOI, all of them. See if you can list, in real dollars, how they have created 10x the dollar value from a given federal budget dollar they’ve spent. (Actually …some have…so this is partially a trick question!)

    I have no intention of being-hard on this agencies. They operate as a result of how they have been structured and function (or malfunction).

    And finally, we can come back to NASA. Examine NASA too. For the $17 Billion into NASA, list the value of what you have gotten in return. (Another trick question? Perhaps. You tell me.)

    * * *

    From much analysis, I believe that NASA is severely undercapitalized. $17B just doesn’t cut it. $30 Billion MIGHT wedge it into a realistic and powerful position. One where the outcomes sought could be secured.

    There is a well-known rule in the venture capital world… that today, for many tech businesses, if you do not invest at least $3M to $5M in a seed start up, it will invariably fail. Again…simple undercapitalization.

    It’s like trying to start a fire with wet matches. Like trying to put your kids through college with $50 bucks instead of the necessary $5,000. Or buying a good reliable car for $200 bucks. Undercapitalized – It just fails, every time.

    As I stated before, much of the above tends to happen-wrong. And it will continue to happen-wrong, in NASA and in all U.S. Agencies and elsewhere, until those in command get smart, and create a Master Plan that embraces not only the sandbox a given commander is sitting in, but that embraces the entire end-to-end government, industry, and Nation.

    * * *

  • common sense

    @Obserevr:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’ll try and answer too.

    “I suspect it would be best if Government function primarily to “govern” – in other words to make laws, rules, regulate, perform judicial functions, provide for national security, etc.”

    Absolutely and it is what I meant elsewhere when I wrote the government should help the public day-to-day life and provide security. I wish more people would read the Constitution on a regular basis…

    “When a government owns billions in hard assets, wouldn’t it seem reasonable and responsible that they work to make sure those assets are USED effectively and efficiently to create value? be useful? return benefit to the Nation and its people?

    If you have a U.S. agency that has a budget of, say, $20 Billion dollars a year, wouldn’t any citizen hope that the $20 Billion would be used to create something of (lasting) value in the end?”

    To make it short: YES !

    “I do not particularly agree with the last sentence you have in the 1st paragraph. I don’t think business is inclined to run the government – they are far more interesting in running their businesses and making money. ”

    There is a strong push to privatizing a lot of what the government does. So as these companies take care more and more of those activities, in essence those companies do run the government. Yet, a company/corporation/business goal is to make money, first and foremost. Therefore it is in total contradiction with the government’s goal to try and work for ALL its citizens. Another thing that I personally find disturbing in the extreme is the push to privatize the military, e.g. Black Water (or whatever its name is now). Private military is more of a mercenary operation and might sell itself to the best bidder. I and we all should not want corporations to run our national security. The military is for the people by the people and should be, period. So here I disagree with you on the effect of businesses on government operations. When their activities become those of the government, again, they become the government, whether we like it or not. AND they are not accountable to the US people but rather to their shareholders/owners.

    “Most real, high end business people have little interest in government. They are more capitalists… and government is inherently less capitalistic and more social-istic (for the reasons I’ve explained above).”

    True in theory but absolutely not true in reality. I am not going back to the bank bailout but this one is a major point. So let’s look at DoD contractors: Most of their business is with the government, not with the general public. These contractors receive very, very large sums of money from the government to keep them going. One aspect of this is the (in)famous cost-plus contracts. This does not make any sense. A business ought to be able to take risk and offer products like most business do. Yet the government contractors say that the government should share the risk. Why? If they cannot provide then be it. In a capitalist world they would just disappear as the market disappear, but they don’t.

    “Yes, I generally agree with your lobbyist comment, above. Generally, in the past 10 or 15 years of my intimate experience in this domain, I’ve seen some very healthy partitioning, limitation, and self-regulation when it comes to lobbying activities and actions. Most of the lobbyist gang is Very seasoned. They know right and wrong and are extremely cautious when it comes to making sure they do not tamper or cross the line into government. Almost neurotically so.”

    This is important they know the bounds of the law and you would expect them to. What is of concern is that if there are only business lobbyist in D.C. acting in behalf of their companies then what is left to the regular public? The public is not (cannot be?) as organized as a corporation. It may be argued that corporations look to the well being of their shareholders and employees. Yet pick a major DoD contractor employing say 150,000 people, how does this compare to the millions of other people?… So the “little” people/business MUST be represented and that is why we are supposed to have a Congress. Then again, what happens when most representatives/senators take their funding from the corporations/businesses… I understand it is not simple BUT it is way past time that we return to the public’s interests as a whole, not those of certain corporations. BTW I could include pharmaceutical, insurance, tobacco, car, etc, industry not only DoD of course but DoD is more intimately related to Space.

    “I’m not quite sure of the 4th and 5th paragraphs you put here. (???) So I’ll guess what you’re trying to say…”

    I was quoting your post and saying that the reasons you provide are not enough in today’s world to justify HSF. I would love to be an astronaut and I knew what, at least 10, 20 other people and may be 1 or 2 “personally” some of which have/had the job. So what? Look at the last crop of astronauts. Any one of them representative of the general public? But more importantly we must change the “metrics” or adapt them so that the general public sees itself in this space endeavor of ours. There is a subtle line between having an “elite” doing some incredible things that you may join if you have certain aptitudes and having an “elite” where it is more important to be correctly “connected” and whose selection becomes a political game. See if we had more people going to space this would not be such a problem. I suggested else where we should try and build a “Space Academy” on the model of a military Academy but a civilian one. With todays knowledge there is no reason why we could not. An Academy would open access to many many people. Some would become “fleet” officers, including astronauts, other technicians of some sort, e.g. propulsion experts. This would agree with the current WH’s aims for education, prestige, technology at the very least. It would be inspirational. Other countries would send their best and brightest there helping on the foreign policy front (friends AND foes).

    “I believe that part of the endeavor of space exploration links to very high level purposes. Those purposes revolve around humanity and its existence on the Earth. As a civilization. As humanity. As life, all life on Earth. Exploration becomes a nature, fundamental action and aspect of who we are. But more than that. It is of what we need to pursue to advance and to ensure our continued existence and survival.”

    YES. But it must be affordable just as you say. This is why Flexible Path, to me, is the way to go. I would love to go to Mars and land there myself, but then, there is this tiny detail you mention: debt! Note further that opening exploration to a fruitful collaboration with our current partners and new ones such as China would help too. I understand the management aspect of it might be a nightmare. So first things first: We need an incredible leader that will put us there. It could be the NASA Admin but it could be someone else. I would love to see the President do something in all these directions above. So here I mainly agree with you. Despite the itch “to go” I think it is better to have an incremental approach.

    “Create wealth”

    Absolutely, but is it not the nature of capitalism to have rich and not so rich or poor people? It also is the nature of capitalism to provide opportunity. So I think we need to find a way to create wealth for the people yes, not for some elite of some kind. Again COTS is a step forward in that direction but a “small step for man”. I am looking for a “giant step for mankind” after 40 years! Not footprints mind you! A giant step towards getting “all” people involved and able to participate (Did I mention a Space Academy? ;) ).

    “The generally expected and imperative rule in the private sector is: For a given $1000 investment, you MUST get at least a $10,000 cash return, from whatever you spent the $1,000 on. Do that, or die.

    Do you see that rule applied in Gov’t spending?

    This is a tough question especially in light that the government does not exist for profit. A simple example would be our 2 on going wars. What is the return on investment? But I’ll keep it there. But to answer a more “business” oriented question I would say this. The government should draw its requirements for a product/service. If such company delivers then fine but what if they don’t. The system is completely broken. If they don’t then they just ask for more and in general they do get it especially if 1000s of jobs are at stake. So to me your question is more like should we change our procurement system? And even though I have zero expertise in such matter, I would say just by observation YES! On the other hand by nature a so called democratic system as ours is built to create waste due to the very many compromises one needs to achieve some thing, any thing.

    “So now, look at a Gov’t Agency. Take NIH. NIH gets what, $26 Billion per year? Now, can you or anyone in the audience please tell me about how NIH generates $260 Billion in value per year?

    Take NSF at $6 or $8 Billion per year. Again, please tell me the ouputs of NSF that yield $60 Billion in value per year. Take any year and list the outputs. Can you?

    No I cannot. But I can say without problems that the requirements are totally different between NIH and NSF or NASA. So it is not appropriate to make the comparison here. You should look at agencies having similar requirements and then compare their input/output. Then you will know which one is better managed and adapt the other one. You CANNOT and MUST NOT compare apples and oranges. A medical outfit does not have similar requirements as a NASA engineering outfit: you cannot compare them!!! Just don’t!

    “or the $17 Billion into NASA, list the value of what you have gotten in return. (Another trick question? Perhaps. You tell me.)”

    I cannot give you an informed scientific answer to that. Others have. And no it is not a trick question. I think it ought to be one of the activity at NASA to demonstrate the value they provide, just like any other agency. But value must be defined here. To me here is what it did for value: I wanted to become an astronaut. So I went on and got some relevant education. This education helped me do some research, I taught some and got to work on the Space program at different levels. So I got an education that benefited the public since I was able to publish scientific papers and to teach what I knew to others. Then it helped me create value to some companies that used my knowledge to make a profit (or so I like to believe ;) ). Without going into too much detail I think these are tangible results that are of value, are they not? Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Again, you should define value and then check again. Value has we said before is not equal to cash. Cash is only a part of a value.

    “$30 Billion MIGHT wedge it into a realistic and powerful position. One where the outcomes sought could be secured.”

    I don’t know that. What is the outcome sought? Is it the VSE? $30B may be even too little to accomplish what the VSE is about. Then again, the VSE had deadlines that are obviously blown today so the VSE needs to be adapted. Does NASA have to accomplish the VSE in our life time? I don’t think so. So budget MUST be realistic. The O’Keefe spiral approach made a lot more sense than ESAS in that that the capabilities were developed over time and the mission would evolve along with them. So how about we look at the current $10B (even add the $3B) and see what it is we can do in the Flexible Path option. As we go we review what we do, not every 20 years but really often: Here are our capabilities so let’s set some realistic goals and let’s use what we have. For example, let’s use EELVs and show we can accomplish part of VSE. Once it is done we ask ourselves do we need Ares V? If yes then we go ahead. Etc. I’ll admit it is a little simplistic but the idea is there.

    “here is a well-known rule in the venture capital world… that today, for many tech businesses, if you do not invest at least $3M to $5M in a seed start up, it will invariably fail. Again…simple undercapitalization.

    It’s like trying to start a fire with wet matches. Like trying to put your kids through college with $50 bucks instead of the necessary $5,000. Or buying a good reliable car for $200 bucks. Undercapitalized – It just fails, every time.”

    Not to say it is undercapitalized but most rules you describe are most likely based on heuristic. There is no such thing for Space. Space is an on going activity and you cannot derive any significant rules with so little data. On the other hand when you see something failing you can change course. All steam ahead is feeble to put it mildly.

    “until those in command get smart, and create a Master Plan that embraces not only the sandbox a given commander is sitting in, but that embraces the entire end-to-end government, industry, and Nation.”

    What do they say? Hope springs eternal? But I am with you on this one!

    Hope this helps.

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