Monday, June 20, 2011

From NASA to USSG: Fixing the U. S. Space Programs

As readers of this blog may have realized by now, some problems in engineering ethics lie mainly not in the bad decisions of individuals, but in wrongly conceived or executed institutional organizations and policies. A lot of well-intentioned people working in a poorly structured outfit can nevertheless do real damage. The engineering ethics poster-child example of this is NASA, which holds the dubious distinction of being responsible for one of the leading engineering ethics case studies, the 1986 Challenger disaster. While human lives are invaluable, much harm also results from waste, inefficiency, and mismanagement, and NASA has had its share of that too. But I am not here merely to register another carp about NASA, but to draw your attention to a well-considered and politically astute alternative to the present mish-mosh that is U. S. space policy: the creation of a United States Space Guard (USSG).

Writing in the Winter 2011 issue of The New Atlantis, space consultant James C. Bennett describes an idea that originated with U. S. Air Force Lt. Col. Cynthia A. S. McKinley in 2000. She looked at how a basic structure that might once have been appropriate for a small federal agency, which the National Aeronautics and Space Agency once was in the early 1960s, was inflated all out of proportion during the Great Space Race that got the U. S. to the moon first in 1969. But to use a human-body analogy, what remained after that unique experience bears some resemblance to what might happen if a 110-pound professional jockey decided to become a temporary Sumo wrestler, and bloated up to 600 pounds for one wrestling match. Even if he won, he’d have a lot of trouble getting his old jockeying job back afterwards, and NASA has been the 600-pound Sumo wrestler in the nation’s space efforts ever since.

The domination by NASA of virtually all important aspects of U. S. space activities, whether military, civilian, governmental, commercial, regulatory, or scientific, has distorted and rendered inefficient or neglected a lot of things that might have fared better, and might in the future fare better, if we reorganized our whole approach, which is what the Space Guard proposal does. I don’t have room to describe all the ingenious details that Bennett has added to McKinley’s basic idea, but I will concentrate on the fundamental analogy between a familiar and well-functioning organization, namely the U. S. Coast Guard, and the proposed U. S. Space Guard.

Though usually engaged in peaceful work such as search and rescue operations, navigational facilitation for commercial sea traffic, and other fairly routine tasks, the Coast Guard is a cadre of officers in uniform committed to service, at the cost of their lives if necessary. As Bennett points out, the informal motto of the Coast Guard in lifesaving efforts is “You have to go out, you don’t have to come back.” Making personnel of a new U. S. Space Guard similarly sworn to duty, with the recognition of a uniform, military rank and command structure, and so on, would at last acknowledge the fact that space travel and space-related work is hazardous and astronauts, at least, put their lives on the line. We expect that of policemen, firemen, and soldiers, but to expect it of civil servants (technically, that’s what astronauts are) is not fitting, to say the least.

The establishment of a U. S. Space Guard would allow the collection of a number of important but unglamorous space-related tasks under one roof where a common body of experts could coordinate activities which now are spread far and wide. For example, responsibility for communications satellites is presently spread among agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Commerce, and NASA (if any of their launch vehicles are used). The FAA is also presently involved in regulating some “black” (secret) U. S. Air Force military space work, which does not fit the agency well. Transferring these sorts of tasks to the new USSG would make more sense.

Besides remedying such existing confusions and inefficiencies, and freeing up NASA to do what it was founded to do in the 1950s—namely far-out exploratory and scientific research—the USSG could spawn helpful and fruitful new efforts. We could start a Space Academy, along the lines of the other service academies such as Annapolis and West Point. We could maintain a Space Reserve of former USSG service people who could be recalled to active duty should the need arise. And best of all from my point of view, the USSG would be a fresh start organizationally, instead of yet another patch or fix to the dysfunctional organization that is NASA today.

This is not to say that NASA has no good features. Obviously it does. Its unmanned science programs are still among the best in the world, doing wonders with inadequate funding. But so much of what NASA does depends not on national needs and plans, but on whose congressional district and which company does it, that only a well-planned and politically wise transition from the status quo to a new order in which the USSG plays the main role will improve things. At least, this idea is the best one I’ve seen addressing the question of what the U. S. should do about space. I just hope that for once, reason and common sense will prevail over the less salutary aspects of politics, and we’ll do the right thing about it.

Sources: James C. Bennett’s article “Proposing a ‘Coast Guard’ For Space” appears in the Winter 2011 edition of The New Atlantis, pp. 50-68.

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