To Boldly Go . . . Anywhere?

When it debuted in May, the number one movie in the country was Star Trek, the re-launch of a long-in-the-tooth entertainment franchise that long ago became a cultural icon and one of the most successful brands in entertainment?s annals. Nearly simultaneously, NASA launched the space shuttle Atlantis with a crew to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, itself a cultural icon that has become one of the most successful science projects in human history.

Ironically, the original Star Trek (1966?1969) television series was a commercial flop, losing money its first two seasons before being canceled after the third. Syndication turned it into a cultural phenomenon. One of its most famous tag lines, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” was allegedly borrowed from a 1957 White House pamphlet on space (see “Boldly going: Star Trek and spaceflight”, The Space Review, November 28, 2005). Indeed, the show tackled bold subjects for 1960s television: race, gender roles, and civil liberties. Star Trek?s mythology spoke to an optimistic future, in which poverty, war, and greed had largely been conquered as systemic social problems?at least on Earth. If the current movie continues to do well, the franchise, which had been losing its audience for a decade, may gain a new lease on life.

Can the same be said for NASA? The agency turned fifty last year and soon will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of landing a man on the Moon?still a touchstone in human history. Repairs of the Hubble Space Telescope were nothing short of amazing and Mars rovers continue exploring a planet long known as the graveyard of spacecraft. NASA recently launched its first major mission to the moon since Apollo, significantly advancing the work done by two small missions during the 1990s and recent lunar orbiters from Japan, China, and India. Every day, NASA and its contract personnel do wondrous things. High praise for the agency is usually well deserved.

Yet, NASA has its problems. Landing someone on the Moon is a feat we cannot currently repeat. The space shuttle is scheduled to retire in 2010 upon completion of the International Space Station. Its replacement, Constellation (which will also reach the Moon) is underfunded, won?t be ready before 2015, has technical problems, and recently had its initial capabilities downgraded. Consequently, the United States faces a gap during which it will be unable to launch humans into space, making us dependent on Moscow?s good graces and monopoly prices for access to the space station largely financed with US tax dollars. More generally, hardware development programs routinely run behind schedule and over budget, such that some have given up hope that the agency will ever accurately estimate the cost of proposed missions. The Congressional Budget Office recently analyzed 72 NASA programs and found an average cost growth of fifty percent; one fifth nearly doubled in cost. Meanwhile, the agency?s civil service workforce is aging and mass layoffs in critical industries loom as the shuttle retires.

NASA is still emerging from an almost feudal governance model in which certain NASA centers had more power over the agency?s future than headquarters, particularly when allied with local political actors committed to pursuing parochial interests. In its recent history, the agency suffered from inadequate systems engineering skills and experience, resulting in part from a history of outsourcing such work to the private sector in order to cut costs. (In all likelihood, this national effort to “reinvent government” went too far in the 1990s and was exacerbated during the first few years of this decade.) Its recent history suggests a weakness at developing mature requirements before committing to long-term development, which undermines cost discipline. Indeed, NASA lacks a process and institution similar to that of the joint requirements process and oversight council established in the Department of Defense. NASA?s last administrator, Michael Griffin, and his team sought to rectify some of these institutional limitations, but it is too soon to know whether his organizational changes will long outlive his tenure. Some of these wounds are self-inflicted. Others result from external forces. Either way, they may well contribute to unwillingness among policymakers to trust the agency with a significantly larger budget. In short, NASA enters its next fifty years with a plate full of problems.

There are a host of explanations for this state of affairs, including insufficient funding and a general lack of focus. The agency?s real spending power dropped 20% between 1992 and 2007. At its peak in 1966, NASA received 4.4% of all federal spending. In 2009, it constitutes well less than 1% of the federal budget. As trillions flow out of federal coffers for economic stimulus and restructuring, NASA?s budget is projected to remain flat, unlikely to keep pace with inflation. At the same time, over the last four decades, the agency?s suite of missions has grown considerably, even as its resources have not. In addition to the human spaceflight programs for which it is best known, NASA conducts an aggressive astronomy and astrophysics program, of which Hubble is only one of many missions; a planetary exploration program; a growing Earth science program; activities in life and biological sciences; aeronautical research; and is studying improved air traffic control capabilities for the Federal Aviation Administration. NASA?s founding statute even includes the goals of building better cars and improving the lives of the disabled. No wonder it?s difficult to stay focused.

The President himself appears to lack a strong opinion about the space program. During the campaign, his position evolved from pledging funding cuts during the Democratic primaries to promising increased funding during the general election. (Belated recognition of the importance of space to vote-rich Florida may have had something to do with the shift.) As President, he requested a short-term budget increase, even as he announced future funding cuts. The President told Florida reporters this spring, “I think it?s important for the long term vibrancy of our space program to think through what NASA?s core mission is and what the next great adventures and discoveries are under the NASA banner? I think it?s fair to say that there?s been a sense of drift to our space program over the last several years. We need to restore that sense of excitement and interest that existed around the space program. Shaping a mission for NASA that is appropriate for the 21st century is going to be one of the biggest tasks of my new NASA director. Once we have that vision, then I think that it?s going to be much easier to build support for expanding our space efforts.” Strong words, but not much in the way of leadership. The drift was certainly real, and became tragically apparent when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated while returning from a science mission in 2003, killing all seven of the crew. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board noted in 2004, “The U.S. civilian space effort has moved forward for 30 years without a guiding vision,” and concluded that the diffusion of programs was having an adverse impact on the agency: “the result? is an organization straining to do too much with too little.”

To provide the missing focus and vision, the last administration specifically planned to return people to the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars. Congress, whether it was run by Republicans or Democrats, twice reviewed and endorsed that vision. Yet, as a nation, we failed to adequately fund the programs needed to achieve it. Between fiscal year 2005, when the Moon-Mars program was launched, and 2010, NASA will receive roughly $3.9 billion less than anticipated. In about the same time frame, the agency experienced additional, unanticipated, costs to: return the shuttle to flight after Columbia ($2.7 billion), pay for Congressional earmarks ($1 billion and counting), service the Hubble Space Telescope ($300 million), begin retiring the space shuttle ($2.4 billion), and maintain the space station, ($1.4 billion). In the end, NASA?s budget available for executing a focused, visionary space program was roughly $11.7 billion less than anticipated when we embarked on that journey. For an agency with an annual budget of $18.7 billion, that?s a significant decline. (The fiscal year 2010 version of the appropriations bill in the House of Representatives proposes additional cuts.) Sadly, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board?s 2004 concerns still ring true.

The question facing the Obama Administration is whether America?s civil space program still matters. Lacking a vision of its own, the administration turned to Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation and a widely respected aerospace leader, to figure out what to do with the human spaceflight program. His panel has just a few months to complete its work, barely enough time to diagnose the full extent of NASA?s problems, much less develop multiple solutions. Nevertheless, he and his colleagues should acknowledge the obvious, that NASA is still straining to do too much with too little. They can recommend doing less, or they can recommend increasing the agency?s resources.

There is no shame in doing less. Leadership involves priority setting, which inevitably means disregarding lower priorities when they conflict with more important tasks. Synchronizing NASA?s ends with its means would go a long way toward rectifying some of its existing budgetary problems and rationalizing the program. That said, cutting content is an underwhelming option for a country that led the world to the Moon and still embraces the optimistic future envisioned by Star Trek, at least at the box office. A trimmed-down NASA with modest goals would not boldly take the American people anywhere. Sure, NASA would continue making contributions to science, but the agency would eventually lose the esprit de corps that makes it so successful, not the kind of organization to inspire future generations of engineers and tech-savvy workers. Most likely, it would continue to suffer from “drift” and lack the “sense of excitement and interest” that the President bemoaned. It would not be an agency, and we would not be a country, worthy of the vision that President Kennedy laid out when he first mobilized the nation to explore space.

Speaking to the students of Rice University in 1962, Kennedy aimed us at the Moon and into a program of developed advanced scientific and technological capabilities “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” In other words, it was a test, a challenge to harness technology in service of the country, rather than letting developments in science and technology choose a future for us. Just as Kennedy chose bold leadership, it will be up to Norman Augustine to recommend, and then President Obama to decide, what the future holds in store for this generation, whether we are to boldly go into that future, or settle for something less. Surely, if the folks who brought us Star Trek can get it right after forty years, we ought to be able to do the same in the real world of exploring space.

This article appeared in The Space Review June 29, 2009.

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