As previously discussed, on the eve of the half-century anniversary of the Kennedy speech that set us off on such a wrong course, Jim Bennett has a piece at The New Atlantis on a proposal for a much-needed restructuring of federal space policy and players.
[Update a few minutes later]
A sample, highly relevant to tomorrow’s anniversary:
Space activity in the United States was almost entirely military in origin: During the early years, most space launches were military — initially reconnaissance satellites, and later weather and communications support systems — and until the early 1980s, even non-military payloads were mostly sent into space on rockets based on military missiles. The civilian space agency, NASA (initially standing for National Aeronautics and Space Agency), was created in 1958 by vastly expanding the existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a small research organization that supported the aviation industry. When NASA was started by the Eisenhower administration, it was envisioned primarily as an overtly civilian shell that would take selected spinoffs of military programs and operate them as a visible civilian program for prestige and demonstration purposes. Meanwhile, the real space program, run by the United States military, would continue to operate in secret as it had since its 1954 authorization. Since NASA’s expected role was minimal, the old administrative structure left over from NACA was deemed adequate — even though the organization had almost no significant experience with large systems management.
In 1961-62, NASA (renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to reflect its upgrade) was repurposed by the Kennedy administration to take on a massive development task: creating the Apollo system for manned lunar exploration. The agency also began conducting unmanned planetary exploration, prototyping satellite communications and other commercial activities, launching privately-funded commercial satellites on legacy military-derived launch vehicles, and a variety of ancillary aeronautical and space functions. More or less by default, NASA became a space transportation utility, a de facto regulator, and the de facto American interlocutor in any international space activity.
Apollo-era NASA was effectively an emergency governmental mass-mobilization effort, comparable to Germany’s wartime V-2 program and the Cold War “missile race.” (Indeed, veterans of those undertakings played prominent roles in the Apollo program.) In the case of Apollo, as in the other instances, the head of state was committed to the project, time was more of a constraint than was cost, and the effects of success or failure were quickly felt. However, as NASA moved from the era of Apollo to the era of the space shuttle, the agency’s mode of operation changed dramatically. The primary driver for NASA’s work became institutional self-preservation. Political pressure from Congress and the White House made job preservation a priority. Resource constraints consistently trumped schedule and performance. Shifting goals and pressures made clear accountability difficult to attain.
The cumulative legacy of these transformations — from NACA to NASA, followed by the turn to Apollo, followed by the switch to the space shuttle — is an agency that dominates its sphere in a manner unlike any other in the executive branch. The agency also has unusual lacunae in its management capabilities, with a span of responsibilities always outmatching its span of attention and control; ultimately, these lacunae have harmed the agency’s technical capabilities as well. The agency’s bureaucracy is characterized by very powerful entrenched internal fiefdoms with their own external political patrons giving them effective vetoes over administrative decisions, and a strong sense of privileged authority over large areas of national space activity.
Read the whole thing, though it’s appropriately long.