Monday, December 7, 2009

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

Prior to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project there were several attempts by the United States to engage the Soviets in a joint space effort. President John F. Kennedy was the first to propose a combining of U.S and Soviet resources. Kennedy’s core focus was defusing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviets by working together on a moon landing. His message to Nikita Khrushchev initially laid out specifics on what cooperation would entail. Khrushchev had initially responded positively, but then added that “cooperation without disarmament” as a precursor would severely limit the extent to which joint sharing of information or joint missions could take place. Kennedy tried once again at a speech to the United Nation shortly before his death asking for joint cooperation between nations on space endeavors, but by the time of Kennedy’s second speech the race between the U.S. and the Soviets was too far along to reset each nation’s strategies. The assassination of John F. Kennedy shortly after the U.N. speech ended any chance for cooperation as fulfilling Kennedy’s moon challenge would be accomplished by the U.S. alone in honor of the fallen President.

With Richard Nixon’s election in November of 1968 the course was changing. It can easily be argued that over the history of the space program it has been driven by political concerns and ambitions rather than technical achievements. The Nixon view towards space would be no different. Nixon had fought for the creation of NASA as Eisenhower’s Vice President. Now, NASA would be his political pawn in a chess game of détente with the Soviets. Early in 1969, and at Nixon’s direction, overtures were made to the Soviets to engage in discussions about a joint space effort. With the moon landing not yet achieved, but almost a certainty, the Soviets were in a difficult position that made accepting such overtures a public acceptance of defeat. Ironically, that same year the movie “Marooned” would be released. The movie was a realistic depiction of three American astronauts trapped in an Apollo-like capsule after the service module engine failed to ignite. The movie ends with a Soviet spacecraft changing course and reaching the astronauts and providing assistance until help arrived. That very concept was an original tenet of the Kennedy-Khrushchev proposal back in the early sixties. Marooned was the first movie portrayal of the U.S. and Soviets cooperating in space at a time when the rivalry and hard feelings were at an all time high. It would take persistence by Nixon’s lieutenants and a more receptive Soviet Academy of Science that would finally convince the Soviets to undertake a joint mission and make cooperation in space a reality.

The proposal for some type of joint effort came attached to other points of cooperation such as providing the Soviets with lunar rock samples and exchanging weather satellite data. The political deal making by the White House would get NASA caught in what would be the first of many political and budget dramas that would play out for the next forty-years following the moon landing. The Nixon White House had put a stranglehold on the NASA budget and no matter what the directive or mission NASA could not exceed its budget number. Nixon at one point in 1970 had publicly stated that manned spaceflight by the U.S. would come to an end following Apollo 17 and that unmanned missions were to be the preferred choice. Nixon had already cancelled Apollo 18, 19, and 20. NASA had worked furiously to save manned spaceflight and won approval to continue on the basis that their new vehicle, the space shuttle, would be the cheapest route to space. Nixon finally agreed that the shuttle was cheaper than any other solution to carry payloads human or otherwise into space.

There were other problems with the continuation of manned space flight in the interim until the new shuttle came on board. NASA was using leftover Apollo hardware for Skylab to keep America in space. NASA had built two “Skylabs”, Skylab I had flown successfully after some initial glitches and was inhabited by three separate crews. NASA’s post-lunar/pre-shuttle plan for space came down to launching a fourth Skylab mission or doing the ASTP project. With budget issues looming large over NASA, the second Skylab workshop would never be launched and was destined to become a museum artifact. While the hardware had already been bought and paid for, the expense of operating Skylab would have delayed the shuttle development. The shuttle and Skylab were intertwined. The planned third launch of the shuttle was to be a rescue mission that would boost Skylab to a higher orbit and provide the station with five more years of usable life, and America with a destination for the shuttle. That mission was planned for 1978, but the shuttle's first launch wouldn't come until 1981. Too late to save Skylab's decaying orbit.

In the spirit of détente with the Soviets, Richard Nixon would get the first mission in space between once rival nations. For the Soviets, there was another reason to cooperate with their former rival. Despite their success with the Salyut I space station, their first attempt at docking there failed. The Soviets had a string of prior flights where two and on one occasion three spacecraft executed a rendezvous, but did not dock. It seemed the Soviets had a problem docking two manned spacecraft. The partnership with the U.S. could be a direct benefit to their program.

There were other concerns about the ASTP program – the transfer of technology to the Soviets and about missing out on another opportunity to gain more expertise from another Skylab mission were issues that troubled NASA officials and the media. Many had dismissed any technology transfer to the Soviets claiming the Apollo hardware was already obsolete and soon to be replaced with state of the art shuttle hardware. However, Chris Kraft had noted that perhaps the real benefit for the Soviets came from understanding the process and management techniques of NASA. He also noted that the Soviets got an in-depth look at how we build spacecrafts and how we run the program. There was also a sentiment that after the U.S. accomplished the goal of landing on the moon and demonstrated a clear technical superiority that the Soviets were allowed to climb back up on the stage as an equal to the U.S. in space power.

The ASTP brought out the complexities of the two nations working together. It would take five years of planning for a mission where the two spacecraft would remain docked together for only two days. The main objective of the mission was to test the docking mechanism and the rendezvous of two spacecraft launched from two different locations using two different vehicles and methodologies for spaceflight. It was a seemingly simple task after Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but one that required years of understanding the nuances in detail of each other’s space programs and spacecraft to accomplish.

There would be disagreement on whether or not the ASTP was a good use of NASA resources. The mission itself was successful, but nearly ended in tragedy for the three American astronauts when a series of switches that triggered chute deployment were missed on the checklist. The late, manual deployment had caused a leak of toxic fumes into the cabin which nearly killed the astronauts. The astronauts spent two weeks in the hospital recovering after the splashdown. It would have been an unfortunate ending to the Apollo program and an auspicious beginning to U.S – Soviet cooperation if on the last flight of Apollo hardware and the first joint mission between nations that a loss of life would have occurred. Had the astronauts perished it is likely the cause would have been traced to human error, but many conspiracy theorists would have likely blamed sabotage by the Soviets, damage by the Soviet vehicle, a faulty docking mechanism or what many thought to be a flawed mission to begin with. Such a tragedy could have impacted U.S.-Soviet relations in general and certainly would have impacted future cooperation in space.

In hindsight, the mission was a technical success, but did not immediately lead to further cooperation in space. It succeeded in providing the U.S. access to the previously secret Soviet space program, but it would take until 1995 before another joint mission would occur with the first docking of the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Mir space station on June 29, 1995. There would be eleven shuttle missions to Mir and one mission with an American astronaut, Norman Thagard, flying aboard a Soviet craft for the first time. While the ASTP was a valuable PR success, it ultimately benefited the Soviets more than the United States. The Soviets ended up with information related to U.S. thruster technology and retained the docking mechanism as well as the airlock technology. It would take the fall of the Soviet Union and the resulting financial constraints on the Soviet’s that would force their hand in cooperation with the U.S. and would lead to their full partnership in the International Space Station. Eventually, the partnership would take on new meaning as America became reliant on Soviet hardware to ferry American astronauts and supplies the space station as the shuttle program went offline due to two tragedies. The ASTP opened the door for two former rivals to show that nations could cooperate on a successful mission, but once the political card was played by the Nixon White House, the stark reality of the NASA budget remained and follow-up plans for further joint efforts didn’t seem to fit either countries future agenda.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Apollo at Forty

Forty years ago humans embarked on a dangerous journey from which their safety and return could not be guaranteed. Not since humans first journeyed far from the savannahs of Africa or set sail across vast oceans has any trip been so defining of the spirit that lives in all of us. We are seekers of knowledge, of new frontiers, we are restless spirits and explorers always seeking to chart the unknown in the quest for understanding what lies beyond our shores.

Today we remember and celebrate not just an era when giant rockets and giant men ventured across the stars to set foot on another world, but when we as humans dared to leave the safety of our shores and fulfill our destiny as explorers - to reach out and quench that thirst for knowledge by not just dreaming, but by turning our fears into courage, our dreams into words and our words into action.

We remember the words of Neil Armstrong as he stepped on to the surface of the moon “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and later “Here men from the planet earth first set foot on the moon – we came in peace”. Only five hundred of us have ever left planet earth to venture into space. Just twenty-eight of the billions of us have ever left the confines of low-earth orbit earth to venture to the moon and only twelve of us have walked on its surface, but it is not the number of us that made the journey that was important. What was important was that we decided to go at all - for in the end it was not just twelve men who made the journey, but a civilization that made that journey with them.

On this day, we mark that great adventure and the skill, courage and bravery of all who made that journey possible. Many are no longer with us, but their spirit and their commitment live on. The fruits of their work shall sit for an eternity on the surface of the moon and will survive long after the humans that built it or remember it will walk the face of the earth. It will live on as a monument to an era when risk, daring and a strong national will defined the human spirit.

We can only hope that the spirit of that time is not lost on future generations. Our spirit and our drive to seek out new frontiers cannot be silenced by those who think exploration too risky or too costly. Hundreds have paid the ultimate price for the dream of space exploration. Perhaps millions over the existence of humankind have done the same to move us forward off the plains and off the shores to a bold new world over the horizon. Today, we also remember the small steps of our ancestors that made “a giant leap” possible.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Houston We Have a Problem....Again

"With a few exceptions, we have the technology or the knowledge that we could go to Mars if we wanted with humans. We could put a telescope on the moon if we wanted," "The technology is by and large there. It boils down to what can we afford?"

Norman Augustine
Chairman, Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee

Before this entry I had written a long response that I was going to publish about why the various teams that had presented to the US HSF Committee were dead wrong about making pitches for low cost alternatives to what NASA already had on the drawing board. Those pitches were heresy I thought. We (the fanatical space loving community) are our own worst enemy. Maybe ARES I isn’t the right next-gen rocket, but don’t go tossing the ARES V out with it on another Swiss Army knife spacecraft. We were committing the cardinal sin of pitching lesser solutions that will leave us in the same place we are today and not fulfill our Moon or eventual Mars destiny. I was thinking if we’ve got the platform (the committee) then let’s pitch the entire vision and strategy and all the parts that will make it happen step-by-step. If someone bites on a proposed solution because it’s cheaper we’re going to be stuck with it. Then we will be wondering why China is planting a flag on the Moon and trying to leverage space as more than a political venue, but as a resource. We’ll have no one but ourselves to blame and the detractors will say you proposed it in the first place. It will be a convenient excuse to once again diminish America’s role in space.

As Norman Augustine’s comments reflect this is once again about costs. Not a vision, but bottom line dollars. What can we do for the least amount of expense. The majority of the members of Congress that will vote on the NASA budget are uneducated about manned space exploration. The last thing we want to do is give them a low cost solution that won’t get the job done. They’ll approve it. Then I realized that the teams making these proposals had tossed their rose colored glasses away and are pitching these ideas to save the space program. They know what we all know deep down inside. The space program lives today and will live tomorrow on the table scraps fed it from the Congressional spending trough until we change it.

It is frustrating indeed to see proud American industries teeter on the edge of survivability by their own hand and get bailed out with billions and here we have our nation’s technology leader, NASA, treated as a panhandler. Forty-years after the Moon landing and here we are again. Welcome to déjà vu for it is 1969 once again. Shortly after the Moon landings Richard Nixon wanted the space program cut. Cut completely. Interestingly enough Eisenhower who created NASA found out late in his Presidency that the organization was planning to put humans on the Moon. He was furious and called it a waste of public resources. Whether or not his then Vice President Nixon espoused that belief or carried that philosophy into his own Presidency is not known, but ten years later after Nixon had been elected President the dismantling of the space program had begun. Once again it was about costs.

The Shuttle we fly today was born of that era. A compromise of what was needed versus what could be afforded. Eventually, the Shuttle program was carved down to a high risk, lesser capacity vehicle than what NASA originally requested. The resulting design would have to operate at the extreme limits of machine performance and risk. One that was soon realized couldn’t meet the very expense guidelines that gave birth to it. Costs were paid not only in dollars, but in human lives. There wasn’t a vision that anyone could have dreamed of that would have expanded the program back then. Despite the fact that we were a driving space force we stepped aside and let time pass the space program by… but for a few dollars.

There is an old saying in the business world that if given enough money, time and resources you can get anything done, and therein lies the problem. In the world NASA operates in those are precious commodities that are not in abundance. Now factor that to get those three you need a strong base of support from the American community, strong political support from the President and Congress, and an economic climate that will make the sale of the program palatable to all interested parties. To get a blank check you would need a climate of overwhelming support on every side of the spectrum much like the one that existed in the sixties. Perhaps a climate where Americans felt of the verge of being labeled second best to another country and were determined to win a race to prove a superior technical and political way of life. The recent economic meltdown and the global economy we live in has already acclimated Americans to the thought of other nations rivaling the U.S. like China or a group like the European Union who GDP already rivals the United States. Unfortunately, Americans are becoming accustomed to living in a world where our dominance is questioned. Perhaps a resurgent American Space Program could be the answer, but for the immediate future I don’t see any of a resurgence of a strong public or political will coming together in a way that will make that viable at least under the current approach.

We need a sea change, a paradigm shift of how we approach public support for the space program and how we define our interests in space. It’s time for us, the dedicated loyal followers to do what we can to re-architect how Americans view space. This is no small task by any means. That’s not a next decade, next year, or next month thing. That’s a NOW thing. As the saying goes “The right time is NOW”. We the space enthusiasts are everywhere and as such have the ability to work grass roots locally to start the process of bringing greater awareness and visibility to America’s efforts in space. To inform, excite and educate.

The times have changed in America on many fronts which will make our battle for space all the more difficult. This is a different social, technical, political and financial America then has existed at anytime in our history and is far removed from the climate of 1969. Over the four decades since the moon landing Americans have bore witness to a technical and information revolution. One that has dazzled and amazed us and one that makes feats like launching rockets to the moon an expected feat and not a daring feat. It’s not that most American’s aren’t interested it’s that their expectations have been reset. Ask most about going back to the moon and the response wouldn’t likely be “why should we”, but rather “why can’t we” as if to say this seems like something we should have already been doing. People are less dazzled because the imitation of life by art is so good. I heard a story once that after the movie Apollo 13 came out Buzz Aldrin asked Ron Howard where he got the launch footage because he hadn’t seen those angles before. The answer why he hadn’t seen it? It didn’t exist. The images were computer generated yet they looked so good that even the second man on the moon was fooled. The average kid today must think going to the moon is boring. After all it’s a couple of people cramped in a small capsule for a few days and then walking around on the surface. Just like on the series “From the Earth to the Moon”, just like in Apollo 13 or perhaps even a comparison to Star Trek or Star Wars. The computer generated images of today far exceed the best footage of the space race and venturing to the moon seems tame by the comparison to the adventures of Luke Skywalker. Lost is the technical marvel that you don’t see that it takes to get there and the bravery to venture into space.

Perhaps it is I who is wrong about how I look at the space program. Maybe I am hanging on an era that has passed us by. The ISS and the cooperation of so many countries is a great example of how space unites us. Yet inside of me I can’t help but want another American flag on the Moon or an American on Mars and I can’t picture an Orion capsule launched atop an Arianne 5 rocket. It’s a pride issue for our country and for the space program. We are the leader in space and we shouldn’t we relinquish that title but for a few dollars. Kennedy was driven by competition and his spirited challenged rallied the country largely because it was a challenge. It was as a boxing match between cold war warriors that pitted the U.S. against the dreaded Soviet Union for the title of national pride and to be victorious in the greatest race the world had ever seen. We didn’t just want to win, but tower over our opponent as they lay on the mat. Yet in this era I am willing to compromise to save the dream of putting humans into space. Perhaps it is that spirit of cooperation not competition that will put humans back on the Moon and make a Mars journey a reality. Maybe spaceflight isn’t a U.S. thing, but a human thing. Something we all do collectively. Either way it is in jeopardy.

There once was a self-proclaimed “lone voice in the wilderness” within the space program. That voice belonged to John Houbolt, a NASA engineer who risked his career and standing within NASA to promote his vision for lunar orbit rendezvous to anyone who would listen. He did this standing in the shadows of powerful figures like Wernher Von Braun whose direct ascent method was seen as a front runner early in the planning for Apollo. Houbolt’s persistence paid off and America got to the moon using his method. It was Von Braun who immediately after the LEM touched down on the surface of the moon turned to Houbolt flashed the OK sign and said “Thank you John”. It is the spirit that Houbolt displayed to stand and fight for what he believed in, to be heard over the voices of giants and never be resigned to letting others decide what he knew to be the wrong course that we must emulate. It is up to us to carry that same type of spirit forward so that we can get back to the Moon and on to Mars.

We need to find our voice and find a way to reach a broader audience, educate them, and get them interested in space. It’s time for us this collective group of enthusiastic followers and dreamers of space to seek out ways to do more. Perhaps we need to recruit the likes of Elon Musk, Founder of SpaceX and reach out him about forming an organization to help us educate Congressional leaders, political candidates, school kids and the general public. In a short time he’s taken a start-up space venture to one that will be carrying cargo and possibly crew to the ISS. He’s seems like a good place to start. If we don’t act and don’t do something we will lose this battle once again. The time is act is NOW.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Presidents and NASA

With the nominations of former astronaut and retired Marine Corps Major General Charles Bolden and former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver as the next number one and two to lead NASA President Barack Obama has taken the first step in building a space legacy for his administration. To date, the President has given comments that provide both hope for the future of manned space exploration and cause for concern. It was President Obama who early in his campaign remarked “Why should we send people into space when we have kids in the U.S. that can’t read”. Later in the campaign while in Florida he remarked “I’m a space guy”, but as recent as the interview that Administrator Designate Charles Bolden had with the President it was widely reported that he was told there would need to be cuts in the manned space program.

The space age Presidents it seems have had a love-hate-indifferent relationship with NASA to the extent that we’ve had the extremes of one that wanted to cancel the program (Nixon) and one that helped get us to the Moon (Kennedy). For a program that has the capacity for such positive public relations for America and a symbol not only of our technical prowess, but for our children to aspire to learn engineering and highly technical skills it seems to be one that Presidential leadership (with the exception of a very few) has failed to embrace and leverage.

Even Barack Obama’s statement of “Why should we send people into space when we have kids in the U.S. that can’t read” sounds like an excuse that gets trotted out to contrast educating kids against expensive machines to go back and forth to space. Why then did Barack Obama indicate that he wanted to double U.S. foreign aid? Did we solve poverty here in the U.S.? Seventy-three million dollars just went to Zimbabwe and another two-hundred million dolars went for refugees in Afghanistan. All of this while tent cities and skid row sections of major cities are growing during this recession. If a sending person into space is less important then the literacy of kids then it would only figure that keeping money here in America to solve problems of homelessness and hunger is more important than foreign aid. We spend four billion dollars on manned space exploration. We’re doubling, yes, doubling foreign aid to fifty billion dollars. My point is that in the priority of what we spend NASA is low on the totem pole. To single it out is often not out of need, but out of a sentiment towards manned space exploration in general. In this case a potentially negative one.

While it is too early to tell where the new President will land on the list of most influential Presidents in the history of the space program we can take a look at the previous ten administrations of the space age and rank their position on the list.

It should be no surprise to anyone who sits at the top of the list as the President who did the most for the space program and which President(s) did the least or in this case the worst job of managing the program or setting a vision for manned space exploration. What’s most troubling about this list is that the Presidents at the bottom outnumber the Presidents at the top and aside from positions #1 and #2 on the list the remaining can all be questioned as to their true commitment and advancement of the program.

Here is the top four most influential

1. John F. Kennedy
2. Ronald W. Reagan
3. Lyndon B. Johnson
4. Dwight D. Eisenhower

And here are the six least effective and least influential

1. Richard M. Nixon
2. Jimmy Carter
3. Gerald R. Ford
4. George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton

The top four names on each list are for the most part indisputable, but there are great distances between each, and at first glance one could see a pattern that the worst Presidents for the space program is dominated by Republicans by a margin of 2-1. This isn’t a total surprise. Since Kennedy’s overwhelming support of the space program it has always been associated with the Democrats. Since the incumbent President is a Democrat conventional thinking would lead us to believe that he also would be good for the program, but time will tell.

Let’s take a selective look hitting the highs and the lows since NASA was founded in 1958.

On the high end of the list as the “best” Presidents for the space program.

1. John F. Kennedy – It was fitting that when JFK was sworn into office his set of goals for his Administration was deemed “The New Frontier”. It was Kennedy’s inspiring challenge right after Alan Shepard’s flight that put America in the new frontier of space and on a course to land on the moon. Kennedy grew the space program with both resources, funding and political support. His Vice President Lyndon Johnson was assigned oversight and to ensure the administration’s political support with the congressional leaders. Johnson was the perfect man for the job as he had the clout with Congress from his tenure as a powerful Senator to make sure it there would be no roadblocks.

In Kennedy’s day both the program and the goal of landing on the moon became an “all hands on deck” approach. Kennedy had put aside the mistrust that Eisenhower displayed for using the German engineers and made reaching the moon everyone’s goal. Kennedy was also visible to the program appearing at launches and briefings. His interest was more than passing or lip service he believed in America’s ability to reach the moon. It was the dawn of the high-tech space age and Kennedy wanted America to be the leader. Kennedy tops the list for giving more than casual support to the space program and ranks alone as the only President to effectively wield his political clout to support space initiatives. While still in its infancy he challenged NASA it to achieve bold, but at the time unthinkable goals, and NASA delivered.

2. Ronald Reagan – A surprise to many at number two, but no President since Kennedy threw his support behind the space program like Reagan did and no President after Reagan has done so. Reagan was a strong supporter of the space program and was the President in office when the first Space Shuttle flight occurred in April of 1981. He was also in office during the first in-flight loss of life when the Challenger exploded in January, 1986.

Reagan who had been wounded during an assassination attempt two weeks before the first launch of a Space Shuttle was unable to attend Columbia’s maiden voyage in person, but during his term he believed and fought for a strong space program and after just four flights he declared the Space Shuttle “operational”. While in hindsight the assessment may have been premature it reflected his enthusiasm and belief in the Shuttle as a platform for space exploration.

It was Reagan who over the objections of many of his advisors went ahead with the plans for Space Station Freedom which would later become the International Space Station and while “Freedom” never got off the ground during the Reagan administration and underwent numerous revisions and battles with Congress it was Reagan’s initial vision that gave it life and allowed it to survive initial doubts and become the current showpiece of joint space efforts between nations.

Reagan did not articulate a broader vision largely because the existing vision had literally just gotten off the ground. Reagan came into office just as the United States was getting back into manned flight after a long hiatus and did not challenge the existence or strategy of the Shuttle, but rather supported it. After the Challenger accident Ronald Reagan's eloquent words comforted a grieving nation "There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue."

In no uncertain terms after the worst disaster of the U.S. Space Program he assured all Americans manned space flight would continue. The Space Shuttle program post-Challenger stood down for a significant time while the program was retooled to fix the problems that uncovered during the Challenger accident, but never was the cancellation of manned space flight a consideration. Many believed the Shuttle would lead to a resurgence of the American space program. It would take time to understand that new technology and its place in the annals of space exploration and whether it would be the right platform to achieve greater objectives in space. Long after Reagan left office and long after his death the Shuttle still flies.

3. Lyndon B. Johnson – Upon Kennedy’s assassination LBJ picked up the responsibility for seeing that Kennedy’s goals were achieved. Johnson added a few of his own and quickly became mired with a multitude of tasks and programs that bogged down his administration at a time of increasing strife and unrest in America. Johnson’s “Great Society” and the escalation of the Vietnam War never seriously threatened America’s commitment to manned space. In a way it was Kennedy’s clear challenge and his subsequent death that kept the program on track. In Kennedy’s brief time as President the goal of landing a man on the moon was perhaps his most publicized public and certainly highly visible goal and Johnson would not be the man to end that dream.

As a tribute to the fallen Kennedy, Johnson would ensure that goal was achieved, but LBJ failed to lay the groundwork of what would follow. The demise of the post-Apollo era began with LBJ and as the goal of reaching the moon became more evident the program had already started winding down. Nixon deserves harsh criticism for setting the space program back by forcing major cuts and leaving it without a vision and a goal, but Johnson made the decision easier for Nixon by beginning this process even before Nixon took office. Still, Johnson despite growing unrest in the country over civil rights and the Vietnam War resisted stopping the program. It would turn out that America’s achievements in space gave momentary pause to the national strife and managed to even unite the world as a symbol of what humans could achieve.

4. Dwight D. Eisenhower – Perhaps a little controversy with ranking Eisenhower so high after all it was on Eisenhower’s watch that the U.S. was upstaged by Sputnik, and it was Eisenhower who prolonged the development of missiles as a mainstay in the U.S. arsenal by concentrating on bombers as a weapons delivery platform and that subsequently delayed advances in rocket technology. Perhaps most damaging was his disdain for the German rocket team and alienating that group and their work from potentially advancing American space technology. His direct exposure to the horrors of World War II made him reluctant to place America’s technology future in the hands of Germans. Eisenhower did leave one enduring legacy of the space program, the creation of NASA.

NASA got off to a rocky start as a new government agency. Ike did not have a clear goal in mind for the program, but achieved a significant objective – he made the program a non-defense agency and united what were many disparate and costly programs into a more efficient cooperative vision. It was this groundwork and unified agency that would make putting people into space a core focus and that in turn gave Kennedy the head start on achieving his goal by putting the team to execute that vision in place. Eisenhower could have very easily militarized the space program and made a single branch of the military responsible, but he didn’t and that legacy of NASA lives on fifty-years later.


My list of the least effective “Space Presidents” will certainly cause some rebuttal, but here is the brief reasoning behind the Presidents that have done the most harm or have done the least for the space program. There are two that stick out on this list (Nixon and Carter). There isn’t much that can be said about Bush (41), Clinton and Bush (43) for their commitment to the space program was lukewarm at best. Each can cite an accomplishment or two, but the reality is that they did little to move the program forward. As for Gerald Ford, he spent so little time in office that its almost unfair to give him the ranking as the third worst President for NASA, but he did very little to advance the manned space program forward. Granted, he was cleaning up the mess from the previous administration, but there was no vision from a man who earlier in his career was a staunch supporter of the space program.

1. Richard Nixon – Nixon has no equal when it comes to being the worst President for the space program. He could own the list all by himself and perhaps he should. Despite having the good fortune of being in office when the first landing by a human (an American) on another world occurred Nixon didn't seize the momentum or chart his on next steps for the American space program. Nixon was too preoccupied with the Vietnam War, later Watergate, and burdened by his own insecurities to focus on the space program. For him, landing on the Moon accomplished the dream of his political enemy JFK.

Nixon originally wanted the manned space program ended after Kennedy’s goal was achieved. He prematurely ended the flights to the moon even though the hardware for three additional landings had been bought and paid for. Eventually, Nixon’s aides convinced him to keep the manned space program alive. As a compromise Nixon wanted the NASA budget cut drastically and a cheaper solution found. He positioned it as a new era of space travel, but in reality he really couldn't have cared less. The Space Shuttle was born of that initiative, an incredible machine, but a single method of what should have been a multi-part program. Americans built the amazing shuttle and could have continued enhancing the Saturn program to provide Americans with a versatile launch capability, but we didn't due to Richard Nixon's disdain for the space program. The same Richard Nixon who had a speech drafted to read should the Apollo 11 mission fail and the astronauts remain trapped on the Moon. For Nixon failure seemed an option after all.

The Skylab program accomplished much with very little, but Nixon didn't have the forethought to fund America's space program and keep it on a track that would have dominated for decades. He couldn't see the legacy that would have left behind for him much like Kennedy's space legacy lives on today. Had he seized the moment we would be talking about how Richard Nixon was responsible for Americans on Mars. Instead, Nixon is the man who single handily took the world's preeminent space power and technology leader and set us on a course that would cause the program to drift for decades.

Today, as a result of Nixon's failed vision for space exploration we are in another space race. This time the race between countries is just as footnote. The real race is one of survival, one of keeping NASA in the business of achieving goals and putting humans in space. Why don't we have Americans on the Moon or Mars? The blame rest solely on the shoulders of Richard Nixon. No President has done more damage to the America space program than this man. Just barely did the future of manned space flight survive Richard Nixon. Nixon’s failure as an advocate for space exploration while it was at its prime is just another failure we can add to his presidency.

2. Carter - Since Alan Shepard first went into space during the Kennedy administration every President has had a manned launch on his watch except Jimmy Carter. While the blame for that is not Carter’s alone it is a dubious distinction that reflects overall on his attitude towards manned space flight. Carter exhibited an interest in unmanned exploration, but did not advance the cause of human exploration. During Carter’s time construction of the Space Shuttle fleet had begun and it was Carter against NASA’s recommendation that cut the Shuttle fleet from five to four. Carter’s administration was mired in the malaise that had come across America in the waning years of the seventies – high unemployment and interest rates, energy crisis and hostage crisis were all issues that distracted his administration. The typical caricature of Carter as a “peanut farmer” misrepresented that he might have been one of our more intelligent and educated Presidents. As a Naval Academy graduate that worked on submarines and who was accepted in the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program Carter seemed an ideal candidate to advance the cause of manned space exploration. Carter’s Presidency came and went in four short years and he did little to support NASA or advance the cause of manned space exploration.

3. Bush, Clinton, Bush - All had their opportunities to paint the next generation of manned space exploration and all either let the status quo ride or lacked the political clout or will to change directions.

  • George Bush (41) tried to paint a vision to go to Mars, but faced with a hostile opposing party majority in Congress his plans went nowhere. Former President Bush (41) is an example of a President who wanted to move the dial for manned space exploration, but didn’t possess the right combination of skills and support. That Vice President Dan Quayle was his point man on the initiative spelled doom from the start. Whereas Vice President, Lyndon Johnson wielded a mighty stick with the Congress for Kennedy and could push programs through Dan Quayle was a relative unknown and not so well respected Junior Senator. His clout was absent and the program was DOA with the Congress.
  • Bill Clinton resisted the advice he was given to cancel the Space Station Freedom project and instead opted for a joint initiative with the Russians on what would become the International Space Station. This opportunity was made more convenient by continued problems onboard the aging Russian Mir station and a cash strapped Russian government that needed financial aid for its space program. Those conditions presented a window of opportunity for a joint project. Had Mir been in better shape or had the Russians been financially better off and opted for their own station the International Space Station likely would have never been built which may have altered U.S. space strategy. No one will ever know, but Clinton deserves a nod for keeping the ISS alive even if the reasoning was purely for political purposes to engage the Russians in a positive outreach.
  • George Bush (43) did little for the space program up until the Columbia accident. Bush’s core focus early on was to reign in costs at NASA especially with the ISS. Bush (43), much like Clinton was content to let the space program ride status quo. There wasn’t a consideration of the next generation post-Shuttle vision until the Columbia accident and even then the new “Vision for Space Exploration” (VSE) was just a very broad framework with the details left to NASA and future administrations to deal with. For Bush, the VSE wasn’t a bold new strategy like his father tried to portray, but rather a strategy born out of tragedy and necessity. Unlike his father, the second Shuttle accident convinced the Congress that it was time for a new strategy and the concept of a change in direction came with no real objections. There was little resistance to Bush's broad space vision in large part because the details were yet to come and because everyone knew a change had to take place. What we are seeing now with the Augustine Commission and questions about Constellation and whether the Moon or Mars should be a target are the result of both Clinton and Bush failing to lay the groundwork for a smooth transition from Shuttle to next-generation spacecraft. Had the Columbia accident not occurred it likely there still wouldn’t be a new vision or Shuttle replacement strategy in place today.

In the hearts of American the U.S. Space Program has been a source of pride and accomplishment. Forty years after we landed on the moon we realize how incredible a feat it was. We see that it will take longer to get back there even though our technology has made quantum leaps from mid-to-late sixties technology. The reason is not technology; the reason is because we’ve lacked the right strategy and a President who can garner both public and congressional support.

Not since Kennedy have we had the right Presidential message and the right Congress to get the manned space program what it needs. In a recent poll 52% of American supported in increase in funding for the space program, but that public support has been at odds with either the President or the Congress. It seems unlikely based on what we’ve seen so far that Barack Obama will crack the top five of most influential Presidents in the space age. During his first term it is likely we will see the shuttle retire and we will be without a manned launch capability at least until his second term (if reelected). Early indications are that Obama is more likely to hold the status quo then to go to bat for a bold trip back to the Moon or Mars. Once again the climate for raising the space program back to new heights just isn’t right. Our only hope may be that the next President is the one we’ve been waiting for to be the advocate we need for manned space exploration.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Last Great Space Shuttle Mission

As the Space Shuttle Atlantis prepares to return back to earth there is reason to celebrate the work done by the crew of STS-125. After five spacewalks totaling nearly thirty-seven hours the Hubble upgrade has by all accounts been an overwhelming success. The mission that put two of NASA’s aging workhorses in the spotlight demonstrated that neither was past their prime, but while one enjoys the broad support of the public and the Congress for its amazing photos of the universe the other after two tragedies and the lost of fourteen astronauts gets only selected political support and moderate public support. The Hubble is getting a new lease on life and is expected to perform at least another five years maybe just long enough to celebrate its 25th anniversary while the Shuttle is facing an early retirement in 2010 just short of its 30th anniversary. It seemed for a while that time had caught up with these scientific and mechanical wonders, but like an aging, champion prizefighter both showed they had one more fight left in them to win, and win they did.

The work to repair Hubble showcases NASA at its very best. Extending the life of the space telescope included upgrading parts that were never meant to be serviced. This required new tools and flawless execution once the actual work began in space. Despite obstacles like parts that
wouldn’t exactly fit and bolts that were locked in place after sitting in the extremes of space for nineteen years the crew managed to overcome these challenges and give new life to the Hubble, but amidst the joy of success there is also an element of sadness to this mission. This is both the last servicing mission to the Hubble and the last great Space Shuttle mission. This particular mission more than any other previous Space Shuttle mission highlighted what NASA, the Space Shuttle and its highly trained and capable crew can accomplish working in space. It is fitting in a way that this great mission comes near the end of the Shuttle’s working life. A great example of what the Shuttle can do if given the chance and the right mission.

It took a vehicle with the Shuttle’s unique capability to pull off this mission. One that could capture and hold the Hubble while it was serviced and one that could carry the parts, tools and crew to accomplish the tasks. The new Orion capsule will have no such ability to perform missions of this kind. It will be a “ferry” more than a “shuttle”. Ferrying people to and from the space station and perhaps the moon, but the true capability that is the Space Shuttle ends with this mission. Yes, we have a few more Shuttle missions to go and the delivery of the remaining modules to the International Space Station could have been done in an automated manner by unmanned rockets for it didn’t need the Shuttle to make that possible, but having the Shuttle made it easier.

On this mission there was no substitute for what the Shuttle and the Astronauts accomplished. It wasn’t that long ago when a manned Shuttle mission to service Hubble seemed out of the question and sending a robot to perform the maintenance was seen as a possibility. While that may have been realistic on an object designed to be easily accessed and serviced by such a mechanism this mission proved that only humans could have performed this type of delicate work, Only humans could improvise on the fly assessing and recommending workarounds when unforeseen challenges arose. It is a capability we will miss and one that was underutilized during the life of the Shuttle. For a large part of the Shuttle’s life it had no place to go it was its “own destination” as a recent documentary put it. During the Shuttle’s life we missed out on so much of its potential and now as it prepares to the exit the stage it will be the Shuttle itself we will miss.

STS-125 Commander Scott Altman quoted a line from the movie “300” in complementing Mike Massimino and Mike Good on their success during one of their spacewalks “Remember this day, men, for it will be yours for all time”. Indeed we should remember these days of the last great Space Shuttle mission until such time that another great space endeavor will join its ranks. We can only hope that our wait for the next great moment in manned space isn’t too far off.

Congratulations to NASA and the entire crew of STS-125, Spacewalkers and repairman extraordinaire Michael J. Massimino and Michael T. Good, Commander Scott D. Altman, Pilot Gregory C. Johnson, and Mission Specialists K. Megan McArthur, John M. Grunsfeld and Andrew J. Feustel for a job well done.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

NASA Adrift


As a veteran of many a bank mergers and transition where changes in strategy, direction, vision, personnel and operations were the norm I can relate to what NASA is feeling right now as a change in Presidential and organizational leadership has created that sense of being temporarily adrift. It is natural for an organization and its people to feel lost during major change even though the business direction seemingly goes on as usual until further notice, but is it also human nature to want continuity in purpose, clarity and confirmation that the work being done today will have value tomorrow and that those involved also have a level of job security. Employees, vendors, contractors and others dependent on the program all seek the same surety that their efforts will not be in vain.

As we all know change brings stress to an organization and without solid leadership, a sound direction and strategy, and the voices of leaders asserting that the current direction is and will be the right one the organizational foundation begins to crack. Left in that state for too long and the cracks will spread creating additional problems at every level and function within the organization. Nothing is immune to human nature when it is under stress. That stress creates its own problems such as a lack of focus, strategic paralysis, rumors, errors, reduced productivity and drain of talent as key resources search out a more stable environment.

These "cracks" are becoming more evident. Already we've seen hints at changes in strategy such as forgoing a moon base in favor of a direct Mars launch, capsule downsizing to accommodate fewer astronauts to meet vehicle weight requirements and all of this at a time where stable leadership and political support from the top is absent.

As I’ve written previously there is no magic answer as to where to look for NASA’s next leader. There have been many good choices suggested and a few not so good names, but the time has come to put an end to the uncertainty and appoint a new leader to NASA. That we are one-hundred days and counting into a new administration and while the shuttle retirement was listed as one of the top issues that needed immediate attention there is no leader and NASA and its employees and contractors have been left to founder.

There are questions about President Obama’s commitment to the space program. We can only hope that the hesitation in selecting a new NASA leader is due to wanting the right person with the right vision. The President offered conflicting views about the space program during and after the campaign - on one hand asserting “I’m a space guy” and on the other talking about cuts in the program “Why would I send people into space when there are people here that can’t read”, but then Florida became important in the elections and he promised money for space. As time drags on the second Obama may be the real one – the economic woes are providing perfect cover to cut select government programs while the rest balloons so high we could almost ride a stack of dollars into the sky. We have thrown away trillions at failing companies and comparatively pennies at NASA. We gave more to the car companies to keep them afloat for a few months than NASA’s entire budget and I’ve yet to see the same technical return.

Politics does strange things in Washington. Kudos to Sen. Bill Nelson for getting NASA additional money in the budget to (potentially) keep the shuttle flying (there are some “ifs” attached to that money and some hurdles to clear), but the change in administrations that triggers changes in departmental leadership and direction isn’t a good thing. It has the habit of smothering a current strategy or proposing a new direction and that in an area as complex as space exploration will in the end slow progress. A new leader and new vision work when the vision is clear, crisp and sustainable over the long-term. Our political leaders have consistently let NASA down by talking a good game, but not walking the walk when it came to political and financial support. A key reason we will be caught again (first post-Apollo and now post-Shuttle) without a manned space capability is the lack of support of our political leaders to support a long-term vision for manned space exploration.

Perhaps now is President Obama’s time to make NASA apolitical. Establish a leader and a succession plan that grows leaders from within the organization and offers continuity similar to what is done in the business world. NASA’s role demands that level of leadership, knowledge and consistency. I would personally liked to have seen Shana Dale take the reigns at NASA and become the first female administrator. Her experience as Deputy Administrator positioned her well to lead the team and would have been a great first-step towards that goal. We will now face a new leader with a steep learning curve and likely a top-to-bottom review of everything NASA has in progress. Since that is going to be the charge let’s get started. Mr. President, appoint a NASA leader now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day 2009

It seems only appropriate on Earth Day 2009 to talk about our planet in the scope of the much bigger scale of time and space. Are we the six billion human residents on this planet along with the other animals, insects and microbes all there is in this vast universe?

This week Edgar (Ed) Mitchell stood at the National Press Club and told the audience that UFO’s were real and that there was an “alien
presence” here on Earth. While that sounds a tad more like the fictional Agent Fox Mulder of X-File’s fame than the former astronaut and sixth man to walk on the moon it is the question we all would like the answer to – Is there intelligent life beyond planet earth? Ed Mitchell made it seem like someone already has the definitive answer, but I doubt that.

UFOlogy is a topic that captures the interest of many by virtue of being one of those topics that a few represent as fact by having witnessed a UFO or having an even more dramatic encounter face to face with alien beings, but the proof is often vague, ambiguous, disputed, known only to shadowy operatives or can’t be substantiated. Stories of downed UFO being quickly seized by the military in the dark of night and scurried off to secret locations to be reversed engineered along with the alien inhabitants is the stuff of science fiction. Heresy you say? Let’s separate the key elements of the argument first.

1. Is there life outside of planet earth?

While we have no direct proof it is with high degree of probability that we can say yes. Where we once thought we were alone in our own solar system we can’t unequivocally make that statement any longer. We are learning that life finds a way to thrive even in the harshest conditions and microbial life may live a few meters down in the Martian soil or in the oceans of Europa or Enceladus. Our criteria for “life as we know it” required liquid water and oxygen. Suddenly, even in the cold far distant reaches of our solar system the case for liquid water is strong making at least microbial life possible. It is only a matter of time perhaps ten years or less before we will find some form of living organism. Mars is the likely candidate. Europa a solid bet, but getting a probe funded and launched to land and drill to the ocean below seems more than a decade out.

2. Is there intelligent life beyond our solar system?

Next time you’re at the beach grab a handful of sand and let it sift through your fingers. Then imagine that every grain of sand was a star. Taking it one step further imagine that you were standing in three feet of sand and that sand covered the entire surface of the earth. Now you’re close to the number of stars in our universe. Of all the stars formed by the same process (like each grain of sand) that only one created the ideal conditions for life seems to be “astronomical”. It would be analogous to saying that there was only one black grain of sand in the trillions and trillions of grains you were standing in even though they all had the same origins and composition. That we’ve detected planets orbiting other stars confirms that the formation of planets around stars is a common occurrence. Our sun and our location in our galaxy seem “average”. There is nothing extraordinary that gives us cause to believe that the formation of the earth was unique. Drake’s equation tried to postulate the likelihood of such an occurrence, but equations aren’t necessary. This is a pure numbers game. Given the age of the universe and vast number of chances for intelligent life to develop (number of stars) it would be the most unlikely of unlikely scenarios that an average star would be the only one to get the mix for life right and that life became the only one to develop intelligence. We’ll likely will never know, but as they said in the movie Contact “If we are the only ones it sure would be a waste of space”.

3. Have they visited Earth?

Let’s go back to the sand analogy for a second Take all of that sand (three feet covering the entire Earth) and for the sake of argument assume that each grain is white, but a handful of the trillions of grains we’re black say ten thousand. Spread each grain four miles apart in every direction from the other and you’re looking at the scale of the universe. When you’re done pick a place to stand and now find those black grains of sand, but don’t move from your spot. With some equipment you might spot some grain of sands closest to you and maybe you’ll get lucky and one will be another black one like yours, but the odds wouldn’t favor you. You can’t invent a technology to locate those few black grains out of the trillions – size, distance and time are against you. You know they exist, but finding them is beyond your capability. Even if there is an advanced civilization out there having them find the small and ordinary Earth in the vastness of space just doesn’t seem possible. There is all that talk about wormholes and warping space to cover vast distances in a short period of time, but if we had that technology where would we use it to go? Exactly. We don’t have a clue and our E.T. friends are likely in the same boat.

Following the latest stories and history of UFOs is fun and entertaining, but rather than wait for E.T. to find us we need to reflect on our own planet and realize that someday the survival of the human race will depend on venturing beyond planet Earth. Look how far we’ve advanced in the past two thousand years and we have millions left to improve, but on Earth Day it is important to look at the cost of our progress. In the past two hundred years alone we’ve nearly exhausted some of the Earth’s resources. How will we survive ourselves unless we look to the stars? The cosmic end of Earth is way off in the distant future. In a billion years our sun will have begun to heat up at it marches towards the end of its life making life difficult. Two and a half billion years the sun will have become too hot for life on Earth and five billion years from now the sun will have swelled to encompass the Earth. Long before that we will have exhausted the resources of this planet and will have hopefully begun the process of using our technology to make other planets habitable or at least have the ability to use the resources outside of Earth. If we don’t then it will be us that will be phoning E.T. to come save us.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Which Fox Was Guarding This Henhouse?


Fox News the bastion of fair and balanced reporting published a piece on Thursday April 9th, 2009 that was a little out of character for them. Fox’s Space News section has very little original content and the space section found on Foxnews.com is interesting in that it contains far more links then most other news agencies, but most of it appears to be “bought” news. All of that is fine since most key news sites don’t provide much more than high level stuff and certainly not the depth that Fox has even if it is sourced from other areas.

Somehow on Thursday Google’s news search engine picked up an article that appeared on Fox’s site. The article titled: NASA by the Numbers: Cost Overruns Plague Key Projects turned out to be a one-by-one analysis of key NASA projects and how much more money it was costing than had been originally projected. That of course is newsworthy and no matter how passionate I am about the space program I want to make sure the money is spent wisely, but I also wanted to understand the facts. All of that could have been good reporting, but at the end of each project the “news” became an editorial on what could have been done with that money and called the numbers in NASA’s 2009 budget “eye-popping” and here verbatim is there example of those “eye-poppers”.

— $5.78 billion for space shuttle and International Space Station pr
ojects, equivalent to London's original estimated cost of hosting the 2012 Olympic Games;

— $577 million for heliophysics, the study of the sun and its effect on the solar system, or the amount of Missouri transportation projects to be funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act;

— $447 million for aeronautics research or the deficit currently facing Texas’ unemployment compensation fund;

— $173 million for entrepreneurs to develop commercial transport capabilities to the International Space Station, or the USDA’s total estimated cost of providing food, shelter and other necessities to 847 middle-income U.S. children for 18 years.


As you can see, Fox’s “attack” on NASA’s budget also became a judgment of space exploration in general. I’d certainly rather spend $5.78 billion on space than the Olympics. Ask the Chinese opinion of that one. After tens of billions spent on venues to host the games in Beijing that lasted about a month the sites are now seldom visited tourist attractions for curiosity seekers that cost more to maintain then the meager revenue they generate.

I’m guessing $173 million invested in high technology entrepreneurial companies that will create jobs and spur interest in science and technology by creating private space capabilities doesn’t sound like a wise investment either to Fox.

Now let’s look at the continued Fox attack on NASA by looking at their examples of the overruns. I’m not going to list them all, but just enough to give you a feel for the spirit of Fox’s article.

— Mars Science Laboratory: Costs have risen $657.4 million since October 2007. That’s equivalent to the gross domestic product of Grenada, according to the 2008 CIA World Factbook;

What an achievement it will be when we land a science lab the size of an SUV on the planet Mars. Fox should look at previous Mars missions like the rovers to see how the investment returned higher gains that originally planned. The rovers were to last ninety days. We’re now counting the time they’ve spent exploring in years.

— NPOESS Preparatory Project: Since October 2006, the price tag for NASA’s satellite to study atmospheric and sea temperatures has ballooned $121.8 million, or the amount New York Gov. David Paterson proposed to save in a December budget plan by deferring five days' pay until state workers end their employment or the state’s dismal financial situation allows repayment.

One minute we care about global warming the next we don’t. Does the reporter understand how sea temperatures affect climate? How El Nino and La Nina events have affected rainfall and in turn crop production? Where’s the analysis here of New York’s state budget? Are you’re telling me they’ve not wasted a dime of taxpayer’s money? Do some homework Fox. You’re ready to hand over money to New York without understanding or explaining how they spend their dollars.

— Kepler: NASA's spacecraft designed to discover Earth-like planets, launched last month from Cape Canaveral after a 9-month delay and a $97 million increase in costs, or the amount Oregon lawmakers hope to save in the state's budget by asking unionized state workers to agree to 24 unpaid furlough days in 2009-11;

There are people in the private sector this economy everyday that are losing jobs that won’t come back. These dollars help keep a few more employed, but like New York I’d like to see Oregon’s budget analyzed. I’d like to see the state’s staffing model. Did they create their own mess by overspending in good times? The good news for these workers in Oregon: After twenty-four days they’ll have a job to come back to.

— Dawn: Launched in September 2007, this $465 million asteroid probe is expected to visit asteroids Vesta and Ceres during its 3-billion mile trip to better understand the formation of the solar system. Costs have increased $4.6 million since October 2006, roughly equal to the deficit facing the city of Bloomington, Ind.

Yes, Bloomington, Indiana did have a projected deficit of $2.2 million dollars in 2009 (Source: City of Bloomington Budget), but they also had a cash on hand balance of $4.4 million to start the budget year and a rainy day fund of $4.8 million. The city budget includes construction of a dog park so I’m assuming that the needs of the human population have all been met. Next to New Horizon’s exploration of Pluto this is probably the most interesting mission in progress. Few probably know that Ceres was once considered a planet. The largest object in the asteroid belt has not been explored and we don’t have good images of this round, dwarf planet. This project is the type that should spur the intellectual curiosity of young minds and want them to understand science and the universe outside of planet earth.

The Fox article goes on and one. Endlessly proposing how we could have spent dollars allocated for science and space exploration elsewhere. There is no author listed on the article just FOXNEWS. A few comments on the article:

  1. Not fair and not balanced. This isn’t an article, but an editorial. Somewhere I missed that in the disclaimer (there wasn’t one of course). The underlying theme of the article is that dollars spent at NASA should be spent elsewhere. This article isn’t just about cost overruns, but about the entire budget. It is a thinly veiled attack on space exploration.

  2. Government is loaded with waste. NASA like any company and organization will have its share, but to a lesser degree than most would think. Space is dangerous and complex; it is a constant learning environment. It is a difficult thing to do and do right 100% of the time. The complexity, difficulty and harsh environment stack the odds against every mission yet NASA succeeds over and over. The majority of things NASA does are being done for the first time in human history. Those types of things have no precedent, no previous experience, and no past project to reference as a timeline. It is incredibly difficult to forecast. Criticize that someone didn’t estimate the unknown properly or didn’t pad the budget as is the typical practice, but don’t diminish the value of the work.

  3. Where is the Fox analysis on the real waste in the Federal Government? Let’s look at some examples over the past six years. Medicare’s waste cup runneth over and over. Let’s talk about the overpayment of prescription drugs by Medicare - three, four, five, six times what other government agencies spending for the same medicine. The tip of the iceberg. What about unaccounted for dollars missing an explanation as to its use? $50 billion that no one can tie to any specific use or project, but the money is gone. How about this for an efficient operation - Congress ran a test on the Department of Education by submitting fraudulent documents. The result, approval and a check to a fictitious person using false information to the tune of $55,000. Just a few examples. NASA spends $17 billion and look what we get. Where is Fox trying to track down the missing $50 billion? That certainly seems like a big story.

  4. In good times State and Local governments have spent like drunken sailors building stadiums and arenas funding projects that they couldn’t pay for immediately, but assumed that they would as long as the good times kept rolling. The good times have come to an end and the bill for the waste is coming due. Now, state and local governments have their hand out asking for money under the flag of we’ve done it all right. They haven’t. The Fox article takes a one-sided approach that space is bad business in a down economy perhaps bad business in any economy. Where was Fox when cities and states mortgaged their future on projects less worthy of funding? NASA makes an easy target, but this article is biased. Plain and simple.

This Fox article was hardly worth my time for true space aficionados are use to the “why send people into space when we have problems on earth argument”, but I felt compelled to respond for this article is an opinion portrayed as news, a commentary and as such should have been noted. NASA makes an easy target for those that specialize is distorting the facts and is next only to the Defense Department as a highly visible target for this type of reporting. There are bigger fish to fry in the ocean of government waste. I’d like to see the unknown author of this article find those dollars for New York, Oregon and Bloomington and I think he could do it very quickly if he did a little homework and a little more investigative journalism.

What NASA does for science, education, environment, our understanding of why we’re here and the dangers lurking in space that could threaten us far outweigh the $17 billion we spend annually. I’m sure Fox wasn’t aware they picked up such a one-sided diatribe in their automatic feeds, but Google posted it as a Fox article so Fox must carry the responsibility for it. Next time Fox News read the information you post online that you pass off as news and at least make an attempt at providing a more complete balanced picture. After all it is your mantra.

This subject was worthy of a book’s worth of material and you encapsulated it into a few paragraphs. Do your homework Fox and get a full time space analyst on board to write for you online and provide insight into the missions and the exploration of space on cable. Stimulate minds for a change with the wonders of what we do in space and not deaden them with the endless political talk over and over.

Here is the link to the full article.

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,513575,00.html

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Leading NASA

In the two months since Michael Griffin resigned as NASA Administrator a successor has yet to be named. While NASA is in competent hands under the interim direction of Chris Scolese we all understand the dynamics of being a “lame duck” especially in the political swirl of the Federal Government. NASA needs a new leader and one that will champion the causes for which the organization is charged and one that will bring the passion and leadership to help the many directorates reach even greater heights. In the past few months many names have been floated as the potential next administrator. Some with agency experience, some with military experiences, others with current roles in government administration and some from the ranks of Congressional leadership. With so many choices where should the Obama administration look for the next leader?

NASA’s history doesn’t give us a solid point of reference. Since its inception NASA has flourished during times of strong political backing, clear direction and financial support. It has languished during times when its capabilities and direction have been handcuffed by a diminished or unclear strategy, lack of political will and reduced budget support.
James Webb who directed the agency during quest for the moon is highly regarded as one of NASA’s best yet Webb was not an insider, but also had the advantage of unlimited resources and strong political backing. Sean O’Keefe was also an outsider, but an “administrative professional” as it related to running large government agencies. Michael Griffin was an insider, a highly skilled engineer, and could speak the language of science and physics, but lacked the charisma and political skills so crucial outside the agency. So which direction to choose?

There are two fundamental elements crucial to the success of any venture: the first is business acumen - whether were talking about a government agency or a company in the private sector they both need to be run like a business. Managing products, services, strategy, planning, marketing, finances, risk, customers, suppliers, shareholders, stakeholders and delivering flawless execution to a market that wants that product. The second is leadership. Great leaders lead in all facets of the business. One of the great flaws in many businesses is picking the most knowledgeable person about the product or service the organization produces to lead the organization. It can work, but it is a delicate balance for often this model stifles creativity and doesn’t allow the organization to reach its full potential. Rather than all levels of the organization contributing and innovating it drifts into execution of the singular vision of a single person and often that leads to a frustrated team and a “brain drain” as the best and brightest look for other opportunities.
Many great leaders often knew little about the business they ran, but they excelled in maximizing the potential of every person in the organization. They listened to their team, felt the pulse externally; they challenged ideas and conventional thinking, they made their team “prove” their ideas not because they didn’t believe, but they wanted to make sure the team believes, they connected the dots, knew the customers, knew the stakeholders and found ways to make the organization overachieve, and lastly they were passionate about what they did because the organization’s success was their driver.

NASA needs such a leader. It’s time to restructure the agency. Put the best leader that can be found at the top. Structure the agency so that there is a liaison to the military to ensure synergy and full leveraging of assets and a sharing of technology. Ensure that there are capable deputy administrators skilled in the day to day of operations and budgets. This will allow the leader to focus bringing together the vision and the talent to make NASA the world leader in space exploration for decades to come. NASA needs a leader who can craft a vision and sell that vision to the President, Congress and the American people. We’re falling into the same trap of years past in finding a person to run an agency and not a person to lead the agency.

One of the best and often used examples of success in this area is Lou Gerstner at IBM. Gerstner’s pick at IBM was a surprise to many. His history had been at American Express and RJR Nabisco. When Gerstner was selected to run IBM he was as outside as white shirt, blue suit IBM could get, but IBM was floundering. The massive technology conglomerate that was an American institution and an American success story had reached the highest points only to fall to near bankruptcy. Gerstner’s leadership, focus and marketing savvy are credited with saving IBM and positioned them to thrive. He let the IBM’ers do what they do best. His contribution was focus, direction and leadership.


This is where NASA is and the direction it needs to take is the same. The organization needs to leverage its immense reserves of talent under a new leader who can craft a sustainable vision that will survive for decades to come. Our lesson from the past is that without strong leaders and a strong vision success is evasive and the lack of direction stirs doubt and leads to waning support from the public and political leaders. Let’s get a new leader and let’s look to outside and resist the government insiders. NASA has shown what it can achieve and good times and lean years. The right leadership can take the agency to places it has yet to explore.