Space Policy

The Birth of the Orbiter “Discovery”

by on Feb.23, 2011, under NASA, Space Exploration

These were sent to me this morning from folks on the Shuttle Program.  Discovery is scheduled for launch for the final time tomorrow February 24, 2011, 4:50 pm EST.

Tomorrow is her end, these photos mark her birth. Where were you in ’82?

The Birth of Discovery  02/26/1982

Aft Fuselage   03/09/1982

Mid Fuselage  03/24/1982

Discovery Gets Its Wings  05/02/1982

Discovery Shaping Up  06/04/1982

Flight Deck  09/10/1982

Heat Shields Applied to Discovery

Final Systems Installation  04/19/1983

Liftoff! Discovery’s Maiden Voyage, STS-41D  08/30/1984

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NASA, NASA Policy, and Budget Cutters: A Note to the 112th Congress

by on Dec.31, 2010, under Commercial Space, Congress, NASA, Space Policy

NOTE:  This is a long, heavily edited cross-post from, written in response to a thread asking “what should NASA cut?” – with reference to the anticipated cuts in discretionary spending in 2011-2012.  It was generated out of my impatience with what I see as a simplistic, vapid, and lazy approach to budgeting – e.g., figure out what line item, program or program component is an attractive target for cutting, and then whack it.

A warning about what follows: This is me at (almost) my most pedantic.  I suppose it’s a subset of my current thinking about NASA direction and some venting about politically-expedient cuts as advocated largely by people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about – including some (not all) incoming members of Congress! The government is spending way beyond its means, and (in my view) beyond its purview.  Still, cuts for the sake of cutting tend to compound problems, rather than relieve them.  Such railing is nothing new nor particularly original, and it should go without saying that what I’m writing here about NASA applies to the entire government.  In case it doesn’t – now it it does.

The relationships between policy, planning, budgeting, politics, implementation of policy, and day-to-day operations of an enterprise as vast as the collective activities of NASA are intricate – extraordinarily complex, as a matter of fact.  Even those of us who have been in it for 2 or 3 or 4 decades find it so, and those who haven’t and/or haven’t studied it extensively frankly don’t have a clue.  OV-106 (ed: a poster/participant) is spot on when he addresses stovepiping and all of the redundancy that stovepiping has both enabled and “benefited” from within NASA as a key concern – and as a justification for those who wish to brandish the cost-cutting axe.  Unfortunately this is the nature of large organizations. And there are some reasons why it is so.

That said, addressing those issues is of paramount importance.  Not for the agency to survive, but for the United States to maintain a leadership role in space exploration, which in my opinion includes harnessing what OV referred to as “the incredible amount of talent, knowledge and capability” resident in and around the agency.  To do so we must accept the reality that NASA is subject to political whims (or winds) and constraints and does not/cannot operate as a business entity in the same manner as can, for example, a SpaceX or a Boeing.  Such comparisons (aka “SpaceX succeeds where NASA failed”) are naive at best and specious and/or stupid at worst.  Cost cutting, while necessary, is inefficient and sometimes dangerous at the line item or program level.

Organizational and financial restructuring should begin with a clear understanding of value – a value proposition – which means value as defined _by the customer or stakeholders_ – which, in NASA’s case, is a varied lot.  Assuming for a moment that we accept (OV-106’s) prescription for civil servants:

“Focus the civil servants in the various directorates on future applications, to focus on the goals and objectives NASA just released and however that maps (I assume all goals and objectives map to a particular center area of expertise) to their center, etc.”

…then one might suggest that the value brought by NASA is the technical, cultural, engineering and operational space-specific expertise that can be applied to future development and application – capability that exists no where else in the country (and, one could argue no where else in the world, other than in aggregate).  It’s the application that is under debate – and has been, for decades – and it is that question that must be answered FIRST. Finding a line item to cut as a method for resolving NASA’s budget issues and restructuring the agency is absurd when one recognizes that the capabilities and potential resident in that workforce are precisely what must be retained in service to the country and to the larger effort of space exploration.  It’s how all of that talent, expertise, capability etc are _deployed_ inside and outside the agency that is the issue.

Love them, hate them, don’t care about them, the VSE AND the Obama NASA policy both sought to address this.  The VSE is not dead – it exists as an underpinning to some of the Obama NASA policy – however, CxP is dead and in its haste to bury it, the current Administration acted in a reactionary manner.  A great example of this is the assumption in both the Administration and in Congress that NASA cannot facilitate/will not enable/cannot co-exist with commercial spaceflight development because previous attempts have been failures “if the agency is left to its own devices” – or because such interests threaten pork barrel politics, or because doing so would necessarily destroy the accumulated capability inside NASA re: HSF.  That sort of drivel ignores SpaceHab, the first commercial space company of any duration (more than 20 years).  Plans existed to leverage SpaceHab’s achievements into a truly commercial approach to ISS (involving Boeing and LM).  These were well underway until breaking apart along with Columbia.

In fact, there are plenty of folks in and around the agency and in Congress who have worked for and with commercial concerns for decades.   I am in print arguing that NASA engage in a new “value discovery” effort which, I believed, would necessarily take it out of LEO ops.  Many others within the agency thought NASA needed to move out of day to day operations in LEO in order to facilitate revectoring the agency toward future, beyond-earth exploration – including some who might surprise the casual reader.  But the truth is too often ignored; NASA has not ever been sufficiently pressured or incentivized to transition out of LEO. Market forces drive businesses to change, or die.  In the case of agencies, it is fulfillment of their missions and the value of that mission to the nation that determines continuing funding. Change is, therefore, necessarily very slow unless large policy shifts are forthcoming.

The current Administration’s understanding of this latter point was superb.  They sought to change the game.  Lori Garver’s statement early on that policy changes of this type are really hard, and so are rarely attempted (or words to that effect) was absolutely correct.  However, the Administration’s reaction to CxP and a fundamental distrust of the agency’s capacity to implement change resulted in a plan I’ve termed “walking off the cliff”, wherein the better part of 50 years of accumulated knowledge about HSF – design, engineering, operations, etc. – were to be abandoned in place in the short term.

One likely outcome was that those capabilities would be mothballed for so long as to be severely degraded or lost in the long term, before even asking whether we might want to retain/maintain/modify them, and if so, which ones…? – which all goes back to the value proposition.  That this expertise, talent, capability etc was built up over decades, financed by the American taxpayer, and paid for with the lives of 17 astronauts (and thousands of years of the best portions of life from many of the nation’s best and brightest) made that implementation “plan” all the more egregious.  But the worst part of it was that it robbed commercial efforts of the opportunity to leverage NASA’s technical and operational capabilities to support development of a robust, eventually-commercially-driven industrial infrastructure in CisLunar space (not “just” LEO).  Cultivating a true partnership and facilitation of commercial spaceflight development can benefit both commercial space and NASA via a cross-fertilization of ideas and methods, while retaining those capabilities within NASA that may be needed later.   A recognition of this has slowly developed and things are slowly changing to enable better leverage in some areas, or so we hope.  But an ongoing danger is the idea that we can find items to cut without mindfully considering downstream effects.  WRONG.

Going the way of pork politics to address these issues should be a last resort.  Thoughtful analysis of NASA’s value – and decisions about how best to develop and harvest that value, particularly with future applications, including commercial “new space” – require really really hard work.  The biggest problem is the sheer inertia of history, vested interests, and “this is how we do things” mentality.  Over time, sadly, the agency (like many other large and storied organizations) has been incentivized to maintain lower and lower levels of programmatic rigor with shorter and shorter attention spans as long as execution of said programs remains aligned with political considerations sufficient to keep the money flowing.  And empire building consolidates funding.

I do see some positive signs; there are folks who are eschewing empire building for efficiency, yet others who have and still do retain a creative, flexible view of the agency and its potential, and still others who are doing exactly the kind of hard work involved in discovering value propositions as determined by the customers and stakeholders – rather than by drinking the organizational bathwater.  Personally, I would like to see the compromise worked out in the Senate, eventually signed onto by the House, and forwarded to President Obama as the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 be reflected in Appropriations when the new Congress sits.  Alas, there is much saber rattling about the budget in general and I am concerned that non-rational cuts may occur.  Rather than focus on line items, programs to cut, etc. – thereby replicating previous mistakes – I advocate a continuing and expanded national discussion as to what NASA is to do – at least with regard to Human Space Flight (HSF) – in accord with its capabilities – and when – and why – and then work through it from there.   An honest effort along these lines leads to a re-evaluation of organizational structures, staffing, identification of redundancies – and to other things – external partnerships to leverage capabilities, for one.  Whatever else you may think about it, the folks who built the Obama policy re: NASA understood that.  For that matter, so did the authors of the Vision for Space Exploration in the Bush Administration.  I’m hoping that the Appropriators’ thinking reflects at least that depth of consideration.

The Administration and Congress are doing their jobs – so far.  It remains to be seen what the approach of the 112th Congress will be, all of the political hyperbole-to-date notwithstanding.  In any case, the “how” – implementation – is up to NASA (pending appropriations).  One hopes that values as well as $value$ – rather than bias – will carry the day.  We’ll have to wait and see.  Maybe it’s the optimism of the New Year – I choose hope.  For now.

- Mary Lynne Dittmar

The Flight of the Falcon 9: What it is…and isn’t.

by on Jun.04, 2010, under Commercial Space, Space Policy

First off, congratulations are in order – to Elon Musk, to the people of SpaceX, to former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin (for having started the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS)  program and maintaining a firewall around its funding when there was considerable pressure not to), to NASA for having continued COTS and for putting bets on this particular horse, to the Air Force, and to Space X’s commercial customers.  After an initial abort, the recycling, launch and flight of the Falcon 9 was a thing of beauty.  G&NC (Guidance and Navigation Control) was superb, putting the rocket ~0.2% on perigee and ~1% on apogee, with nominal SECO (Sustaining Engine Cut Off) around 250 km, as planned.

In short, a veritable “bullseye”.

SpaceX is a private launch/space systems company that has developed the Falcon 1 and 9 with a combination of private and government investment at a much lower total cost than previous programs.  The launch today was a flight test, a demonstration of the company’s capability to build, launch and operate a vehicle that can deliver a payload to orbit as specified.  Save for a couple of glitches (an unexpected roll near SECO and the breakup of the first stage upon reentry), it was a stunning success.  More to the point, it increased the degree of confidence that SpaceX will be able to deliver viable launch systems and services to stakeholders and customers.

That’s what it is.

What it isn’t is a verdict on the Obama space policy.  Despite Elon Musk’s statement today in which he opined that today’s successful launch “bodes well for the Obama plan”, it should be noted that this is in complete opposition to a statement he made earlier in the week that was broadcast by NPR on June 2 as part of a feature on the company. Commenting about the critics of the Obama policy (which cancels the Constellation program and aims to procure future launches from commercial companies such as SpaceX and rival Orbital Sciences Corporation), Musk said:

“They sort of focus everything on us and try to create a situation where our first launch of Falcon 9 is somehow a verdict on the president’s policy, which is not right.”

“Bullseye”, again.

I’m a supporter of SpaceX and have been since the company’s inception.  That was back when I was in program development at Boeing.  In those days most in the aerospace establishment dismissed the company as “Musk’s Folly” and the “naive dream of a ‘dot com playboy'”.  Then, as now, what attracted me was the goal Musk was espousing at the time  –  to reduce the price per pound to orbit by an order of magnitude. If successful, the reduction in costs and resulting price would be significant enough, I hoped, to lower the barrier preventing entrepreneurial development of space.

Many years later, that hope was on my mind as  I watched the launch today, tweeting “go, baby, go!” as the Falcon 9 cleared the launch pad.

Perhaps because my support of SpaceX precedes the current debate over NASA’s future and is therefore not mired in politics, I believe Mr. Musk had it right before he was flush with today’s success.  Today’s launch was not a verdict on the Obama plan – nor a judgment of its efficacy or value, nor a predictor of its success or failure as a policy per se.  It was not, as many who commented on Twitter and Facebook and NASAWatch and other space-related outlets and social media sites would have it, a landmark technical achievement.   Nor, as Senators Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas and Richard Shelby of Alabama would have it, was it an achievement marred by slips in schedule sufficient to create doubt about SpaceX’s ability to deliver commercial launch systems to NASA.  Indeed, the comment about schedule slips is laughable given the government’s track record on schedule and budget during development of complex aerospace systems,  whether procured by NASA or the DoD.

What can be said about today’s launch is that it is a validation (to date) of a sort of “roadmap” developed by Elon Musk and his team.  That roadmap is not about launch systems, but a business model that takes a different approach to the development of systems affording access to space – a model where “affording” is the operative term.  The systems and services being nurtured at SpaceX must be developed in order to bring that vision to life.  But make no mistake – it is the business model that is Musk’s objective.  Not the rockets.  They are the means to that end.

So, what can we say about today’s launch?  It was a personal achievement, an undeniable milestone for a man who is clearly, passionately dedicated to opening the space frontier and growing a profitable company along the way.  It was a technical success. And, at least for this viewer, it was a hell of alot of fun.

In much of today’s resulting discourse, however, the flight of the Falcon 9 was primarily a symbol.  As a symbol, it can be used according to  the whim of those who recruit it.  Personally, I find it a symbol of hope, a signpost pointing the way to one possible future of spaceflight.  I celebrate it because I celebrate all enablers of space exploration. As such, I’m not only supportive but grateful to Musk and his team.

But symbols are both more powerful and less real than facts.  They have the power to inflame emotion, and against the backdrop of the current passionate debate about the future of NASA, further escalation of the debate is not a useful or fitting outcome of SpaceX’s achievement.  Perhaps, as a community, we are best served to keep that in mind as we consider what today’s flight is…and isn’t.

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