Politics & Policy

The Right Stuff

The post-Columbia space program.

I haven’t read the Gehman Report on the Columbia accident in its entirety, though I’ve skimmed the whole thing, treading lightly on parts with which I’m already (unfortunately) all too familiar. These included the history of manned space flight in the U.S., and the specific technical description of what went wrong. The latter, in fact, is almost irrelevant to policy formulation per se — it’s only of importance to those at NASA who have to implement specific technical fixes.

In any event, I’ve read enough to know that there’s little new here, to anyone who’s followed the vagaries of what we call our “space program” over the past three decades. As Admiral Gehman said himself in a recent press conference, a large part of it could have been written prior to the breakup of Columbia on February 1.

The investigation board is to be commended on the thoroughness of their review, and their general unwillingness to pull any punches. It’s a wakeup call that our space agency, and indeed, our entire space-policy establishment, badly needed.

It details the litany of flaws in our policy: the under funding for over-ambitious projects; the congressional “earmarks” that contribute little to achievements in space, but tie NASA managers’ hands; the emphasis of pork over progress; the indifference of policymakers to the program except when things go dramatically wrong; the “penny-wise, pound foolish” nature of funding profiles; the one-sided battles between a powerless NASA headquarters and Congress-supported field centers; the deliberate continuous turmoil of the Goldin years.

To me, one of the key excerpts from the report is this:

The organizational causes of this accident are rooted in the Space Shuttle Program’s history and culture, including the original compromises that were required to gain approval for the Shuttle Program, subsequent years of resource constraints, fluctuating priorities, schedule pressures, mischaracterizations of the Shuttle as operational rather than developmental, and lack of an agreed national vision.

It’s actually fair to say that these are more than “organizational causes.” They are the fundamental causes — the foam strike, and the train of ultimately disastrous events that followed, was a result of them. And the most important of all of them is the latter — the lack of vision — which the report does not directly address other than to note its absence, though to be fair, it wasn’t the charter of the commission to do so.

Even Admiral Gehman recognizes this, according to this piece in the New York Times.

“We are challenging the government of the United States” to make up its mind, Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., the commission’s chairman, said yesterday, alluding to the ease with which politicians hail the shuttle program while cutting its budget by 40 percent.

“We need to decide as a nation what we want to do,” Admiral Gehman, who is retired, warned. The solution, he said, was not just a modernized shuttle. “We shouldn’t start by designing the next vehicle,” he said. “That is a trap that we’ve fallen into several times.”

NASA, and indeed, our entire civil-space policy, has been rudderless for decades. As the report notes, the shuttle was primarily authorized as a reelection tool for Richard Nixon, who wanted to staunch the bleeding from the Apollo layoffs, particularly in his home state of California, with its wealth of electoral votes. The space station, authorized by President Reagan in 1984, was primarily approved because NASA needed something to do as the shuttle development wound down. In neither case was there any sense of an ultimate goal, or national purpose, other than to continue “manned spaceflight.” We’ve been exploring low earth orbit, only a couple hundred miles from the earth, for a couple decades now, with no apparent plans to go beyond, or to make it affordable for the rest of us.

Even Apollo, for all of the lofty rhetoric surrounding it, was not really about space, or opening the high frontier — it was about demonstrating technological superiority over totalitarianism. Sadly, rather than making it a race between free enterprise and socialism, we instead (partly in order to keep the American Left and the Europeans on board, partly because there was a Cold War on) made it one between democratic socialism and totalitarian socialism, by setting up a monolithic government agency to accomplish the mission.

In any event, once we’d won the race, we quit, and destroyed most of the infrastructure that got us so quickly to the moon. And so, from the very beginning of the space age, we’ve never had a coherent focus or goal for our civil-space expenditures, allowing them to be driven by political whimsy, favoring job creation or foreign aid over achievement or wealth creation.

Sadly, it’s showed in our results. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

Similarly, when there’s no clear goal for an organization, it’s very easy for encrustations of empires and fiefdoms to build up, for political savvy to be rewarded over merit, for the survival of a bureaucracy and culture and their associated perquisites to take priority over preventing the loss of a multi-billion-dollar space vehicle and its precious crew.

As I’ve written before, we can’t come up with answers until we start asking the right questions. What are we, as a nation, trying to accomplish in space? Once we ask, and get a consensus answer to, that question, we can decide how best to accomplish it, whether that means reforming, restructuring, or even abolishing NASA as we know it, and replacing it with a new agency or agencies better suited to the role, or even in setting up incentives, such as prizes or government-guaranteed markets to promote the development of a diverse and affordable private space-transportation industry.

Admiral Gehman is to be commended for an excellent report, but it only addresses how to do the thing right. That’s advice that NASA badly needs but, as the old saying goes, there’s little point to doing the thing right, if we’re not doing the right thing.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism, and Internet security. He writes about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.

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