Category Archives: Space and Campaign 2008

“Reboot NASA”

Jim Meigs over at Popular Mechanics has some immediate policy suggestions for the new administration. I disagree that the moon isn’t a useful goal — my concern is the horrific expense of the way that NASA proposes to do it, and following Jim’s advice on building a heavy lifter isn’t going to help with that. Whether or not we need heavy lift is one of those assumptions that need to be reexamined. What we need is low-cost lift, not heavy lift, and building a huge rocket won’t provide it.

Pots And Kettles

…in which Keith Cowing accuses me of being “snarky” (in comments). Guess his irony meter is on the fritz. Oh, well, can’t complain. I’ve been getting steady hittage off it for the last hour or so.

Anyway, with regard to the pick for White House liaison to NASA, I’d just like to see something more to his qualifications than that he raised money for Obama (and of course, his sexual orientation is entirely irrelevant, at least to me).

Who Will Replace Mike?

I think that it’s pretty much a fait accompli that someone will, and probably in less than three weeks. On The Space Show on Sunday, David Livingston asked me if I’d heard any rumors who might be the next administrator. I told him that the only name that I’d heard (and not from any off-the-record discussions) was Charlie Bolden. Bobbie Block has a blog post up now confirming him as a front runner.

I have no idea, assuming that he is in fact going to be chosen, and accepts, what this would mean for the agency, or my own desires for its future direction. The last time we had an astronaut as administrator (Dick Truly), it was kind of a disaster. He basically went to war with the GHW Bush administration over the Space Exploration Initiative, going so far as to send his congressional liaison over to the Hill to lobby against it, in preference to focusing on the space station, which eventually got him fired and replace by Dan Goldin (frying pan, fire). One shouldn’t draw grand conclusions from a single example (though many love to do so with Apollo, Shuttle, and ISS), but we have one unfortunate result of our one experiment with an astronaut administrator.

The other candidates mentioned are Scott Hubbard, Sally Ride (another astronaut, of whom I have good reason to think would be a disaster, from my point of view, because she doesn’t seem to share my own space vision based on past statements and activities), Wes Huntress and Alan Stern. Of those four, the only one that I can say right now that I’d like to see get the job is Alan Stern, based on his past comments about needing to harness private enterprise much more than the agency has been. For what it’s worth, Keith Cowing claims that none of them are interested in the job, with the possible exception of Hubbard.

What I found interesting though, is the last bit:

The current head of Obama’s transition team, Lori Garver, is hoping to be deputy administrator.

Lori has told me herself that she has no interest in being administrator, so this is consistent with that, at least. But I think it would be a mistake. I actually think that it’s more important for the deputy to be technical, with technical management experience, whereas the administrator need (even, perhaps in light of the Griffin experience, should) not be. The deputy is sort of like the COO of the agency, managing daily operations and coordinating the centers. The administrator is more like the CEO, and should be laying out strategy, and interacting with the public, White House and Congress. So while not necessarily endorsing her for either, I actually think that, assuming I had to make a choice, she’d be a better pick for administrator than deputy.

Continuing To Take Sides

I admire Neil Armstrong greatly. He’s a great man, and a great engineer. I was privileged to see him a few years ago at a rare public appearance — a commencement address, which was appropriately humble, and focused on not himself but on the graduates, as a good commencement address should be.

That said, I don’t necessarily take anything he says about modern space policy seriously. This is because a) he and I don’t necessarily share the same goals for our policy and b) it’s not at all obvious that he’s been closely following what’s going on with the agency. After his flight, almost four decades ago, he became almost a recluse, returning to Ohio to teach engineering, and offering little in the way of interviews. In any event, he decided (unwisely, in my opinion) to weigh in on the current NASA transition controversy:

Your article indicated that President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team “faces a tough early choice between extending the life of the aging space shuttle and accelerating its replacement.”

I certainly hope that isn’t accurate, in that the transition team should play no part in such decisions. While these men and women are experienced and enthusiastic space program veterans, they are neither aerospace engineers nor former program managers and cannot be sufficiently knowledgeable to make choices in the technical arena.

The transition team does have the responsibility to collect information to assist President-elect Obama in understanding the issues and decisions he will be facing. The making of decisions of such import, however, is the responsibility of the president and should be guided by the best advice from the most able and skilled experts on the subject.

I think that Professor Armstrong has the wrong take on this. No, the transition team won’t, and shouldn’t make such a decision (if for no other reason than it lacks the statutory or constitutional power to do so — its membership has no official government role, nor is it compensated). However, as he notes, they are collecting information to assist the incoming president in making such a decision, and that includes gathering “the best advice from the most able and skilled experts on the subject.” I’m curious as to why he thinks that they are not doing so. Does he think that this team will go through one exercise now, to no useful purpose, and then the president will later take the time to repeat it, this time “gathering the best advice” as opposed to whatever it is he thinks that they are currently doing? Clearly, they are gathering information, integrating it, and preparing a set of recommendations for the new president. As they should be.

But the next part shows that he has not been closely following what’s going on with NASA lately:

He should have no difficulty receiving high-quality information from NASA. Engineers are painfully honest and insist on presenting any assumptions used in their decision process. Therefore a conclusion can only be challenged when an erroneous assumption can be identified. Because this approach is somewhat unfamiliar in business and politics, its importance is often overlooked.

This is a nice, ivory-tower view of engineering and engineers, and I have no doubt that this is exactly what Professor Armstrong would do were he asked. But it is not what NASA has been doing. We have yet to see a full accounting of the sixty-day study that resulted in ESAS (including assumptions), so apparently NASA management either aren’t engineers, or they are not conforming with the good professor’s idealized notion of how they should behave.

A great deal of thought and analysis has gone into NASA’s program to return to space exploration as the principal focus of the agency. The breadth of NASA’s creative thinking was limited by the funding constraints, and compromises had to be made. Even so, the agency has fashioned a challenging but credible program to return to the moon and go on toward Mars.

How does he know this? Seriously?

Does he have access to the reports and analyses that have been denied to the rest of us? How does he know that the “compromises made” were a result of funding constraints, as opposed to political ones, and personal prejudices (or worse, conflicts of interest among the principals involved)? Is he just assuming that it’s the case, because he doesn’t want to believe otherwise about the agency that allowed him to be the first man to walk on the moon four decades ago?

And what does he mean by “credible program”? That if you put enough time and money into it, you can get it to fly? Sure. But that’s not the criterion. The criteria were supposed to be “affordable and sustainable” (not to mention supporting national security and commercial activity) and he hasn’t made the case for that (of course, he hasn’t made the case for the “credible” part, either, other than assertion).

I’d like to believe with him that NASA has the talented leadership, and has done the analyses, and has offered them up freely, with assumptions, to the transition team. But I’ve seen little evidence of it. This letter reads less like serious policy analysis (since he provides no specifics as to why he finds the program “credible”) than motherhood and wishful thinking in the service of the agency for which he worked so long and well, and with which he achieved so much.

Of course, NASA management wasted no time in making sure that everyone at the agency was aware of Professor Armstrong’s statement of support. And by sheer coincidence, the administrator has come out with a new book on his own laudatory leadership in space.

What we have here is an unseemly, pull-out-all-the-stops campaign to politically influence the incoming administration via public pressure (including pressure on agency employees via emails from the administrator’s wife). Mike Griffin should say something immediately to denounce and shut down this activity. If he does not, that in itself would be sufficient reason to replace him, were I the incoming president.

[Update a while later]

Keith Cowing is reporting that the letter was written for Armstrong by NASA. That wouldn’t be hard to believe (at least based on the wording). I think that it’s a little sad, though, that Professor Armstrong would allow his name to be used in such a way.

Hope, And Change (Part Whatever)

A lot of space enthusiasts have been enthused about Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary, based on his support for commercial space. Unfortunately, his staff is under investigation for a pay-to-play scandal. I’d like to say I’m shocked, but there’s an old saying (and I’ve had some experience with it in looking for spaceport consulting work) that New Mexico is “Louisiana with jalapenosgreen chiles.” And this doesn’t help much with the transition, on top of the Blogojevich thing.

Mike Still Needs An Irony Meter

Joel Achenbach has a piece at the WaPo today on the ongoing NASA/transition foofaraw:

Griffin’s pugnaciousness may not have been the most politically savvy way to lobby to keep his job, but no one could say it was out of character.

No kidding. I found this tragic:

With multiple degrees, including a doctorate in aerospace engineering, Griffin is not reluctant to reveal the confidence he has in his judgments. And he may be lobbying for the ambitious Constellation program as much as for himself. He has always been a true believer in what he calls “the majesty of spaceflight,” and he fervently hopes to see human civilization expand across the solar system.

I believe that he hopes that, which is why it’s such a shame that he’s done more to set us back from that goal in the past three years than anyone else.

And this is an attitude I’ve never understood:

Ed Weiler, a NASA associate administrator (occasionally mentioned in the space community as a potential successor to Griffin), would like to see his boss stick around for a while, particularly with the tricky space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope coming up next spring.

“I’d certainly like to have a leader who was an experienced engineer or whatever,” Weiler said.

Why? Why should the NASA administrator be an experienced engineer? Doesn’t NASA have people at lower levels who are competent to oversee a Shuttle flight, even one for the Hubble repair? Is it the job of the administrator to micromanage at that level?

I never had a problem with Sean O’Keefe not being an engineer — I don’t expect a good NASA administrator to be an engineer. O’Keefe’s problem was not a lack of technical expertise, but the fact that he got gun shy after Columbia, and was no longer able to be decisive or lead, because he feared too much having to tell another set of families on the tarmack that their loved ones were gone.

In general, I don’t think it hurts to have some technical knowledge, though in the case of Griffin, I think it did, because he doesn’t/didn’t understand what the job of the administrator is, which is not to get involved in engineering and drive the results of trade studies in favor of one’s own pet designs. Arguably the best NASA administrator (and there aren’t many good ones — most of them have been bad) was Jim Webb, at least in terms of carrying out administration policy and accomplishing the goal. He was a lawyer.