Thoughts on NASA procurement problems over at Space News:
To an outsider, it seems self-evident that NASA’s procurement process is the thing that is broken, or we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Look at Falcon 9, from drawing board to successful first flight in much less than 10 years, and an expenditure on the order of half a billion dollars, and compare that with Ares 1, and tell me NASA still knows how to run programs. Compare it further with the program requirements documents for Mercury and Gemini, highly successful programs back when we knew a lot less about spaceflight than we do today.
There’s no way Ares 1 and the Orion crew capsule should have cost anywhere near what they were costing, or take anything like as much time as they were taking, to get up and fly. Whether the problem lies within NASA, or with the government procurement rules within which NASA is constrained to operate, is a question that needs answering. But the end result is the same: another decade lost, and American astronauts sitting by the side of the road with their thumbs out, waiting for the next Soyuz launch.
Arguably our most successful manned program, the Gemini program, was conducted from start to finish in less than five years. It cost (including 10 crewed flights) somewhere between $5 billion and $7 billion adjusted for inflation — less than we have spent on Constellation/Ares without even making it to our first orbital test flight. Gemini did everything we need from a crewed spacecraft, at least until we get out of cislunar space. Put a beefed-up heat shield on it and it could have gone to the Moon, and there were some studies for that. That’s what we did when the U.S. had a cumulative total experience in manned spaceflight of three man-days — not man-years, not even man-months.
I am not an engineer. My degrees are in history and business. If I am anything, I am a historian. So, as a historian, I ask: What’s so hard about replicating this level of capability, with technology that’s 40 years more mature?
Well, as another (amateur) historian, I’ll answer the question. That was then, this is now. In the sixties, actually accomplishing things in space was important, because we were in a race with the Soviets. Today, developing useful space hardware isn’t important. Maintaining jobs in certain congressional districts is.