Congress, NASA, Other

A post-shutdown roundup

With the end of the government shutdown, things are starting to return to normal (at least in the pre-shutdown sense of “normal”) for NASA and the rest of the federal government. The agency has resumed regular operations under a continuing resolution (CR) passed Wednesday by Congress that keeps the government funded until January 15, 2014, at fiscal year 2013 levels. The CR, HR 2775, doesn’t contain any special policy provisions for NASA, but does allow NOAA to spend its funds at a rate “necessary to maintain the planned launch schedules for the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system.” That language is identical to what was in the original CR, H.J.Res.59, introduced in the House last month before getting wrapped up in a debate over the Affordable Care Act.

The end of the shutdown has also affected another policy issue that arose during it, the decision by NASA officials to block Chinese scientists from attending the Kepler Science Conference at NASA Ames Research Center. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reports that those scientists who were originally blocked from attending have received a letter from NASA that the original decision was overturned and that their “paperwork is being reviewed for clearance.” The end of the shutdown also allows the conference itself to proceed on schedule, starting November 4, conference organizers said Thursday.

And with the shutdown over, people can now pay attention to other space policy issues. In an op-ed in the Washington Times last week, Joshua Jacobs of the relatively new Conservative Future Project blamed NASA’s current problems primarily on Congress, in particular the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. “Imagine what could be done if resources being thrown into the furnace for the Space Launch System was repurposed for technology incubation, commercial projects, or heaven forbid, actual missions,” he writes. Jacobs, though, is critical of the Obama Administration as well for canceling the Constellation Program, saying the program was “fiercely lauded in the scientific and space community”—but also suffered from budget issues.

In another essay on the website PolicyMic last week, Christopher Blakeley says NASA’s decision to shelve the J-2X engine—planned for the upper stage of the SLS but not needed for its initial missions—after tests of it are completed next year is another sign of a flawed space program. Like Jacobs, he believes NASA should partner more with the private sector. “Space exploration can no longer be a contest to see who’s got the biggest rocket,” he writes. “Looking at the private space travel through companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic instead of creating rockets that can’t take us anywhere is a great place to start.”

25 comments to A post-shutdown roundup

  • Hiram

    “Jacobs, though, is critical of the Obama Administration as well for canceling the Constellation Program, saying the program was “fiercely lauded in the scientific and space community”—but also suffered from budget issues.”

    Yeah, there’s always that one little caveat. We can’t afford it. We can pretend we’re doing it, but it’s never going to happen. What was fiercely lauded was the IDEA of it. That’s the easy part. If you can’t fiercely laud the budget, however, you’re in deep trouble, and we never came close to being able to do that. So, do I understand that Jacobs is critical of the Obama administration for canceling a project that we were only pretending was going to happen?

    The Conservative Future Project is an organization that we should keep our eye on, however. It is a pro-science, pro-technology organization that is trying to influence the GOP. Of course, the science and technology that it espouses seems to be what comes out of a libertarian flavored unregulated individualism, and the leaders have no obvious expertise in science and technology. As long as science and technology aren’t defined that way, any political pressure to commit more credibly to science and technology is certainly worthwhile.

    • Ben Russell-Gough

      I agree with Hiram’s point here. The objectives of the Constellation Program were laudable indeed. Unfortunately, the project ran into endless problems, some due to individual egos (creating runaway engineering problems that it internal NASA politics made it impossible to fix), some due to NASA’s inappropriate organisational structure and philosophy for such a project and some due to the fact that the project was never fully funded. In the end, the combination of all these issues made the project functionally unexecutable, as the Augustine Report concluded.

      • Ameriman

        the (nasa Constellation) project was never fully funded
        ========
        Nasa is a greedy, bloated, pork driven, incompetent Federal Agency.. there is no funding, however massive, which is ‘adequate’… while Nasa blew $20 billion failing on Constellation, private enterprise SpaceX produced vastly superior boosters/capsules for only $300 million.
        Nasa has blown 40 years and $500 billion on HSF since Apollo, without getting a single American beyond low earth orbit, leaving itself incompetent/incapable of crewing or even resupplying our own space station… instead we got the $1.6 billion/flight unaffordable, dangerous, unreliable boondoggle shuttle, the useless $200 billion white elephant ISS, the miserably failed/cancelled $20 billion Constellation…. now the shamelessly unneeded, unsustainable, earmakred pork SLS/Orion…
        Govt is inherently and inescapably greedy, incompetent, corrupt.. it (like Nasa) can’t be fixed.. Govt/Nasa can only be minimized and decentralized to reduce what it can steal, screw up, corrupt, bankrupt.
        We need to downsize/eliminate Nasa and it’s useless deadwood centers/HQ… instead use the NSF to directly fund Caltech’s JPL for probes, and private enterprise like SpaceX for boosters and US manned space.

  • Coastal Ron

    Like Jacobs, he [Christopher Blakeley] believes NASA should partner more with the private sector. “Space exploration can no longer be a contest to see who’s got the biggest rocket,” he writes. “Looking at the private space travel through companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic instead of creating rockets that can’t take us anywhere is a great place to start.”

    I agree with this. And there are two sides to this situation – call it Supply and Demand.

    Supply:

    The way I view it, one of the prime roles of government is to do what it’s citizens and companies can’t or won’t do. During the 50′s & 60′s, when no one knew how to build safe rockets and how to travel safely in space, it made sense for the government to fund and lead activity in that area. But now that our U.S. aerospace industry has more experience, and more experience in space hardware than NASA, our government no longer needs to duplicate what industry is already doing.

    Demand:

    Our U.S. aerospace industry is pretty robust, and is successful building both payloads and launch vehicles for government and private sector customers. But space exploration does not have any demand for beyond LEO activity, and even the ISS is really thought of as a science platform – more of a precursor that supports future space exploration.

    What we lack is an agreed upon reason for why we should be exploring space with humans. We’ve been kind of coasting since the ISS was approved, but even then the ISS was only a precursor to what should come next – and we can’t agree on what that is.

    For myself, I think the U.S. should declare that it’s in our interests to become a spacefaring nation, and to extend our economic sphere of influence further out into space. I’d be happy to keep NASA’s budget fixed where it is at today, and I think that NASA’s role should be more as a coordinator than the doer. And yes, the goal I stated doesn’t have dates nor tangible end points, and that’s because I see such an effort as in the same light as what we do with science (i.e. NIH, DOE, DARPA, etc.).

    But regardless what we do, we need to have better consensus than we have today.

    My $0.02

  • Egad

    Any word on whether the sequestration/shutdown/debt mess has affected the process of putting together KDP-C [KDP = Key Decision Point] for SLS? It was apparently supposed to be ready in 1QFY2014, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been pushed out to January or February.

    Among other things, since one component of a KDP-C is supposed to be a program budget, sequestration has probably made things more challenging even on those days when people are allowed to come to work.

    • Coastal Ron

      Egad said:

      Any word on whether the sequestration/shutdown/debt mess has affected the process of putting together KDP-C [KDP = Key Decision Point] for SLS? It was apparently supposed to be ready in 1QFY2014, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been pushed out to January or February.

      Even though the shutdown only lasted 17 days, I’m sure the SLS Program Office can justify a 3-month delay in any reports that would most likely show bad news for the SLS.

      Among other things, since one component of a KDP-C is supposed to be a program budget, sequestration has probably made things more challenging even on those days when people are allowed to come to work.

      Certainly one measure of how “durable” a program is can be seen when the budget environment gets tighter. For the SLS program, which was already under-funded overall for being used at the anemic rate of one flight every few years, a tighter budget environment is going to accelerate the timetable for when Congress will finally decide there is no real need for an HLV, especially a government-owned, government-run one.

  • DocM

    If govt wants to do something *really* useful it’ll drastically reform FAR, the federal acquisition rules, to be more of a COTS system with milestones. This would likely help not only aerospace but military and other high end development projects. No more blank checks.

    • Coastal Ron

      DocM said:

      If govt wants to do something *really* useful it’ll drastically reform FAR, the federal acquisition rules, to be more of a COTS system with milestones.

      There is nothing wrong with the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) process when it used for the right reasons. Just like there is nothing wrong with Cost-Plus contracts when used in the right situations.

      When you have public/private development partnerships like the COTS program was, and the CCDev and CCiCap are, Space Act Agreements (SAA) seem to be the better choice. I’m not sure that was proven out on such a scale prior to COTS, but it certainly has been shown to be a valid approach now. Then once you’re out of development, normal FAR contracting is appropriate.

      • Vladislaw

        As cost plus is used to justify every boondoggle of the Military and NASA, how about we switch to fixed price and if no aerospace company wants to bid on it,,, then we scrap that idea and try and another one .. over and over and over and over… until such time contractors realize there is no more cost plus… what we would lose out on, by not offereing cost plus fixed fee contracts, seems fractional at best.. but with the BILLIONS in savings we would get a lot more products and services.. just not with every conceivable bell and whistle.

        • Coastal Ron

          Vladislaw said:

          As cost plus is used to justify every boondoggle of the Military and NASA, how about we switch to fixed price and if no aerospace company wants to bid on it,,, then we scrap that idea and try and another one…

          Yes, cost-plus can be a feeding trough, and ironically it’s the anti-government/small-government groups that make it that way, since cost-plus is abused the most when the government is not able to monitor the work being done. The Tea Party would never understand this concept, mainly since they really don’t appear to have any business sense to them in general.

          But in general, when you don’t have a defined product or service, and that product or service is for a specific government-only need, the only way companies will work on such activities is when they don’t have to accept too much risk. That’s the same for non-government customers too.

          I don’t know if there is any magic bullet to solve this, but certainly the better the customer can define their needs, the better the contractor can solve them. Throw in frequent reviews and decisions points, and that’s probably the best way forward.

          My $0.02

          • Vladislaw

            I do understand where you are coming from Ron, but, what EXACTLY would be be losing by doing away with cost plus? I mean what is being proposed under cost plus that our entire economy – country is hinging on? Versus what those savings could actually could actually be spent on.

            • A_M_Swallow

              If you want to make cost plus work then it has to be divided up into lots of stages or models. The team must be made to finish one stage before starting the next.

              The specification team, the implementation team and testing team will normally be working on different stages at any time. That is 3 stages. Bugs can be fixed in the stage in testing but new features are banned. New features go into the stage the specification team are working on. Keep each stage short.

            • Coastal Ron

              Vladislaw said:

              …but, what EXACTLY would be be losing by doing away with cost plus?

              No one that knew what they were doing would bid on high-risk, not well-defined government work. And those that did bid, the ones that don’t know what they are doing, would quickly go out of business and nothing would get done.

              This would not be a short-term issue either, since businesses would just wait until the situation changed.

              The best solution is to have more reviews, both of what is driving the requirements, and of the work being performed. But even that raises costs, and sometimes can muck things up, so it’s not a silver bullet.

              It really comes down to making sure you understand what the result should be, and WHY. Part of the Lean Startup movement today actually addresses this situation, by breaking down the development phase into smaller increments and doing what is called “validated learning”. Essentially, until you have validated that you know what the end product should be, you shouldn’t be going hog-wild on development.

            • Mader Levap

              “what EXACTLY would be be losing by doing away with cost plus?”
              Work on bleeding edge tech, where by nature of work you WILL encounter unpredictable problems.

          • Ameriman

            The Tea Party would never understand this concept, mainly since they really don’t appear to have any business sense to them in general.
            ========= =
            So, the Tea Party patriots ( responsible, productive farmers businessmen, engineers, taxpayers) who object to the Obama Democrat $10 trillion of new bankrupting Democrat deficits have ‘no business concept…. while I suppose irresponsible, greedy liberals/Dems, the takers who created and the debt do?

            The Bush administration issued ‘fixed cost’ COTS contracts to SpaceX…. the entire 12 flight SpaceX COTS contract was for less than the cost of a single Govt/Nasa shuttle flight($1.6 billion)….

            The problem, of course, is that with fixed cost/service contracts, Govt/pols/nasa lose control… and lose Govt jobs..

            SpaceX has backed up it’s claim that private industry is 10 times more efficient/effective than Govt/Nasa in space business..

            However Govt/pols/Nasa will continue ‘cost plus’ contracts because it justifies their jobs, leaves them in control.. to dictate stupidity, waste, incompetence, pork.

        • common sense

          Cost-plus is well justified when you build a program where the risk to fail is high and can be based upon the current TRL of whatever we are trying to achieve, e.g. Apollo, Manhattan.

          Constellation was supposed to be at the highest possible TRL and therefore did not justify cost-plus. The only justification was for employment purposes and these are not enough to ensure success of anything.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_readiness_level

          • Vladislaw

            That is what I was refering to CS.. it seems that cost plus is just a cover for doing things the old pork way. I do understand when you are doing “bleeding edge” technology development, there has to be budgetary flexiblity. BUT is EVERY contract done under cost plus, bleeding edge AND just because a tech IS bleeding edge, does that mean it should be cost plused into existence at this particular point in time, is it just another a bell or whistle that really is not going to advance anything in the near term other than a new development contract.

  • amightywind

    Space exploration can no longer be a contest to see who’s got the biggest rocket

    Tell that to the Chinese. A foolish assertion meant to denigrate one of NASA’s few legitimate activities.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      Tell that to the Chinese.

      Why should we tell them that they are taking the wrong approach? If they can’t see and understand what the U.S. has experienced with the Constellation program, and are currently experiencing with the SLS, then maybe they deserve to make their own mistakes.

      Besides, they are having problems bending metal for their Delta IV Heavy clone, so I don’t think they will be building an SLS clone any time soon… ;-)

      A foolish assertion meant to denigrate one of NASA’s few legitimate activities.

      Piffle. Please show us where competing with an established and highly-capable private sector is one of NASA’s few legitimate activities?

      Ronald Reagan would be very disappointed in you for this comment. In fact, this type of comment shows that you are more of a BIG-government type than you think you are. How odd, huh?

    • vulture4

      http://www.spacepolitics.com/2013/10/20/a-post-shutdown-roundup/?replytocom=438134#respond

      The largest Chinese rocket under development, the CZ-5, is in the same class as the Delta IV Heavy.

    • Vladislaw

      the chinese are not building monster rockets, their lunar plans were based on our Delta IV equivilent and Griffin testified to congress that he had did the research and the chinese can goto the moon with their medium lift.

      What he didn’t explain is .. why then was the U.S. prepared to spend 200 billion building two new rockets to goto the moon if we already had two rockets, the Atlas V and Delta IV that could get us there?

    • Ben Russell-Gough

      Almightwind wrote:
      Tell that to the Chinese.

      Why? Seriously, this is not a size competition. If there is a competition, it’s in capability which is also measured by launch rate and cost-effectiveness. Something like the EELV Phase-2 (which is essentially what the Chinese are building with Long March-9 anyway) would be a better competitor for Long March-9 than SLS.

      On a semi-related note, SpaceX are planning to start testing their next-generation LNG-burning engine next year. It could possibly lead to a competitor EELV Phase-2-class vehicle. I’m not cheer-leading here; who knows if it will work? However, combined with what the Chinese are apparently planning for their Long March-5 (Delta-IV-class) and Long March-9 (EELV Phase-2-class) it does seem to suggest strongly that the preferred HLV solution amongst those who have designed and deployed new rockets in the more recent past is a scalable 25t to 100t IMLEO modular design rather than a single-stick 100t+ SHLV.

    • There is nothing in the Space Act about NASA building big rockets. But you’ve probably never read the Space Act.

  • Malmesbury

    If you break a development plan down far enough you can build a river system of fixed price development tasks – the results of the earlier development tasks suggest which tributary you move down…

    The problem is that cost plus becomes cost plus and plus and plus… Overruns become good for business. Cut the cost of the development and get a black mark from your boss…

    The biggest issue is FAR combined with a “winner” picked at the proposal stage. The politicians love it because they can control the money flow in detail. The big companies love it because they can play the political game and charge the cost of the paperwork to the tax payer. If the cost go up, their profits are safe – hell, it’s better business. Trebles all round.

  • DCSCA

    THese conservative scribes aren’t kidding anybody. They don’t give a damn about space exploration– their goal is to erode government on all fronts, be it NASA or the ACA.

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