Monday, April 19, 2010

Obama's Speech to NASA: Clouds in the Sky

Last Thursday, President Obama spoke to present and former astronauts, NASA administrators, and members of the Florida congressional delegation on the future of NASA and U. S. space exploration. Even before taking office, Obama and his staff rubbed some at NASA the wrong way. And with the release of his proposed federal budget to be enacted next fall, NASA supporters discovered to their dismay that there were no funds to continue the development of the Constellation series of manned-flight rockets, which are the only plans presently in place to keep Americans in space with American hardware. So Obama faced a tough audience primed to criticize him.

According to the official NASA transcript, the President received applause at numerous points in his talk. But I imagine it was of a straw-grasping quality that embodied both the engineer's tendency to be polite in the face of properly constituted authority whenever possible, and the deep-dyed habit of trying to make the best of a bad situation. Because, for many reasons, NASA's situation under the Obama administration is pretty bad.

Things could be worse. Obama could have proposed one more extension of the superannuated Shuttle program, simply to be able to say that America was still able to fly its own people in orbit. Thankfully, he didn't do that, even though it would have preserved jobs, which is supposedly one of his high priorities these days. Trying to keep the Shuttle going after its presently scheduled termination this year would be like trying to keep driving a jalopy after two of its four wheels have fallen off. It has been an amazing run carried on too long, and hats off to everyone who made it possible, but we've really got to retire the thing according to plan before it provides yet another tragedy for the engineering-ethics textbooks.

The trouble is, in a well-run organization the Shuttle's replacement would have been designed about eight to ten years ago, the first unit built three to five years ago, and the fully tested replacement would be ready to launch into service right after the Shuttle retired. For various reasons having to do with NASA, accidents, politics, democracy, and other factors, we are not in that happy situation at all. Instead, we have spent some ten billion on the designs for what some people say is a kind of redesign of the Saturn V-era rockets, called Constellation. I agree that Constellation may not be the most innovative design around, but it kept our engineers busy, it's based on proven technology (sometimes conservatism is good in engineering), and it probably would have worked okay. Only now, we'll never know.

What the President proposes instead sounds good at first glance: let the market innovate. Let private companies compete and come up with the most cost-effective way to get there. Instead of NASA saying to firms like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, "Hey, I want to get to the moon, sell me a rocket that will take me there," he wants NASA to say now, "Hey, I want to get to Mars, sell me a ticket to ride." There's just a few problems with this idea.

First off, for the free market to work, you need a market. One customer isn't a market, it's a thing called a "monopsony," kind of the inverse of a monopoly. Instead of one seller and many buyers, you have one buyer and many sellers (you hope). The Wikipedia article defining monopsony uses the single-payer health care system as a leading example of a monopsony. Everybody knows President Obama would have preferred a single-payer health care system to the mess he got, but he settled for the mess he could pass through Congress. This is no place to debate health care, but it is the place to point out that the President seems to think that whatever the role of private enterprise should be, the federal government must end up calling the shots.

Of course, if we waited for private enterprise to get us to the moon or Mars with no government intervention whatever, we would wait a very long time. There is at present no commercial interest in going to the moon or Mars, simply as a paying proposition independent of government intervention. At least Columbus and the great seafaring explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had some prospect of profit in the backs of their minds, although few if any realized on their bets. So government must take the lead in an economy-transcending type of activity such as space exploration, which in the past has served to unite the nation much as wars do, but with much less bloodshed.

There are both tactical and strategic flaws in Obama's plans for NASA. The tactical one of trashing Constellation has raised howls of protest from numerous astronauts all the way up to the Great Silent Engineer himself, Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. As practical men, they see ten billion dollars' worth of creditable engineering going down the toilet at a critical time when we should be way ahead of where we are. And now Obama is saying, no, let's start from scratch and do it really well.

And that leads into the strategic aspect. It may be (though this is just a guess on my part) that Obama thinks NASA is beyond salvaging; that it is an old, worn-out, patched-over organization that needs to take a back seat to new, fresh leadership from the private sector. He may be right in at least this, that NASA needs a shock, something more than the same old same old, to get the nation's space vision back in order. But it is far from clear that private companies, working not just as contractors for hardware but as overall system planners, builders, and executors, will be willing to take on challenges that have proved daunting even to an organization as experienced and resourceful as NASA. Especially if their only customer, the government, turns around and changes its mind after the next Presidential election, which is entirely possible.

Unelected dictatorships have numerous disadvantages, but one of the few advantages is the ability to maintain long-term consistency in plans and projects. The otherwise deplorable government of the Peoples' Republic of China has the luxury of making long-term space exploration plans without having to check with its Congress or its public. The way things look now, the next words we hear from the moon will be in Chinese, if not Russian. And then see how hard it will be to catch up.

Sources: Obama's speech on April 15, 2010 is reproduced in transcript at the NASA website The letter to the President signed by Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, and Eugene Cernan can be read at Another letter from several prominent astronauts and former NASA leaders can be found at

1 comment:

  1. From my observation, it seems that Obama's new space plans are _extremely_ pleasing to research scientists, who have generally disdained manned space programs for the past 50 years, and to libertarians/conservatives, who see the purchase of "commercial off-the-shelf" spacecraft as a great step forward toward a wonderful future in which free enterprise will make spaceflight cheap and easy for people who are _not_ astronauts.

    Exactly how many lib/cons are actually interested in future spaceflight is unclear, and what percentage they are of the 30% percent of US citizens who generally like the idea of spaceflight is equally unclear. But they constitute 90 % of the people who regularly comment on spaceflight on the internet.

    In short, people are getting the future space program they claim they want. I expect this to hold up for another 10 years or longer. I do not expect the 21st century to be remembered millenia hence for the accomplishments of American space programs.