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A Frightening Thought

George Abbey as NASA administrator? If that were to happen, it would be one of the worst effects of the Obama win, at least for those who care about our future in space.

[Update early afternoon]

Here was my take on the Abbey/Lane paper at the time it was first published, over three years ago:

I'm reading the space policy paper by (former JSC Director George) Abbey and (former Clinton Science Advisor Neal) Lane.

It gets off on the wrong foot, in my opinion, right in the preface:

Space exploration on the scale envisioned in the president's plan is by necessity a cooperative international venture.

I know that this is an article of faith with many, but simply stating it doesn't make it an incontrovertible fact. In reality, this is a political decision. If it became important to the nation to become spacefaring, and seriously move out into space, there's no reason that we couldn't afford to do it ourselves. The amount of money that we spend on space is a trivially small part of the discretionary budget, and even smaller part of the total federal budget, and a drop in the bucket when looking at the GDP. Even ignoring the fact that we could be getting much more for our money if relieved of political constraints, we could easily double the current budget.

The statement also ignores the fact that international cooperation in fact tends to increase costs, and there's little good evidence that it even saves money. It's something that we tend to do simply for the sake of international cooperation, and we actually pay a price for it.

Neither the president's plan nor the prevailing thrust of existing U.S. space policies encourages the type of international partnerships that are needed. Indeed there is much about U.S. space policy and plans--particularly those pertaining to the possible deployment of weapons in space--that even our closest allies find objectionable.

While I don't favor doing things just because other countries find them objectionable (with the exception of France), this issue should not be driving our space policy, as I pointed out almost exactly three years ago. What the authors think is a bug, I consider a feature.

In the introduction itself, I found this an interesting misdiagnosis:

In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced a plan to return humans to the Moon by 2020, suggesting that this time U.S. astronauts would make the journey as a part of an international partnership. However, the recent history of the U.S. space program--the tragic Columbia accident, a squeezing of the NASA budget over many years, the cancellation of the Hubble Space Telescope upgrade mission, a go-it-alone approach to space activities, the near demise of the U.S. satellite industry due to U.S. policy on export controls, and international concern about U.S. intentions regarding the military use of space--points to serious obstacles that stand in the way of moving forward.

Again, they state this as though it was obviously true (and perhaps it is, to them). But they don't actually explain how any of these things present obstacles to returning to the moon. The loss of Columbia was actually, despite the tragedy to the friends and families of the lost astronauts, a blessing, to the degree that it forced the nation to take a realistic reassessment of the Shuttle program. We aren't going to use Shuttle to go back to the moon, so how can they argue that its loss is an obstacle to that goal?

Similarly, how does squeezing of past NASA budgets prevent future intelligent spending in furtherance of the president's goal? While lamentable if it doesn't occur, repairing Hubble was not going to make any contribution to the Vision for Space Exploration. And while the state of the satellite industry is troubling, again, there's no direct connection between this and human exploration. I've already dealt with the spuriousness of the complaints about international cooperation. In short, this statement is simply a lot of unsubstantiated air, but it probably sounds good to policy makers who haven't given it much thought.

They sum it up here:

U.S. policy makers must confront four looming barriers that threaten continued U.S. leadership in space: export regulations that stifle the growth of the commercial space industry, the projected shortfall in the U.S. science and engineering workforce, inadequate planning for robust scientific advancement in NASA, and an erosion of international cooperation in space.

There are some barriers to carrying out the president's vision, but so far, with the exception of the export-control issue, these aren't them, and they don't seem to have identified any of the other actual ones.

From there, they go on to give a brief history of the space program, with its supposed benefits to the nation. They then go on to laud the international nature of it. When I got to this sentence, I was struck by the irony:

The International Space Station best portrays the international character of space today.

If that's true, it should be taken as a loud and clear warning that we should be running as far, and and as fast, from "international cooperation" as we possibly can.

The largest cooperative scientific and technological program in history, the space station draws on the resources and technical capabilities of nations around the world. It has brought the two Cold War adversaries together to work for a common cause, and arguably has done more to further understanding and cooperation between the two nations than many comparable programs.

What they don't note is that it is years behind schedule, billions over budget, and still accomplishes little of value to actually advancing us in space, other than continuing to keep many people employed at Mr. Abbey's former center, and other places. But, promotes international cooperation, so that's all right. Right?

The piece goes on to describe the four "barriers," of which only one (export control) really is. While it's troubling that not as many native-born are getting advanced science and engineering degrees as there used to be, there will be no shortage of engineers, since the foreign born will more than pick up the slack. It's perhaps a relevant public policy issue, but it's not a "barrier" to our sending people back to the moon.

The most tendentious "barrier" is what the authors claim is inadequate planning and budgets for the vision:

President George W. Bush's NASA Plan, which echoed that of President George H. W. Bush over a decade before, is bold by any measure. It is also incomplete and unrealistic. It is incomplete, in part, because it raises serious questions about the future commitment of the United States to astronomy and to planetary, earth, and space science. It is unrealistic from the perspectives of cost, timetable, and technological capability. It raises expectations that are not matched by the Administration's commitments. Indeed, pursuit of the NASA Plan, as formulated, is likely to result in substantial harm to the U.S. space program.

Even if one buys their premise--that expectations don't match commitments, that all depends on what means by the "U.S. space program," doesn't it? They seem (like many space policy analysts) to be hung up on science, as though that's the raison d'ĂȘtre of the program. Leaving that aside, they (disingenuously, in my opinion) attempt to back up this statement:

The first part of the NASA Plan, as proposed, was to be funded by adding $1 billion to the NASA budget over five years, and reallocating $11 billion from within the NASA budget during the same time frame. These amounts were within the annual 5 percent increase the current Administration planned to add to the NASA base budget (approximately $15 billion) starting in fiscal year 2005. This budget, however, was very small in comparison to the cost of going to the Moon with the Apollo program. The cost of the Apollo program was approximately $25 billion in 1960 dollars or $125 billion in 2004 dollars, and the objectives of the NASA Plan are, in many ways, no less challenging.

This is a very misleading comparison, for two reasons.

First, as the president himself said, this is not a race, but a vision. Apollo was a race. Money was essentially no object, as long as we beat the Soviets to the moon. The vision will be budget constrained. NASA's (and Mike Griffin's) challenge is to accomplish those few milestones that were laid out in the president's plan within those constraints. It will cost that much, and no more, by definition.

Second, simply stating that the goals of the plan are no less challenging than Apollo doesn't make it so. While the goal of establishing a permanent lunar presence is more of a challenge, it's not that much more of one, and we know much more about the moon now than we did in 1961, and we have much more technology in hand, and experience in development than we did then. In short, any comparison between what Apollo cost and what the vision will cost is utterly spurious. The only way to get an estimate for the latter is to define how it will be done, and then do parametric costing, using 21st-century cost-estimating relationships, on the systems so defined (a process which is occurring, and is one not informed in any way by Apollo budgets).

The U.S. Congress has made clear with its NASA appropriation for fiscal year 2005 that it has serious questions about the NASA Plan.

No surprise there. But that's merely a reflection of specific items (i.e., pork for their districts) that were cut, and says nothing in particular about the overall ability of NASA to achieve the plan with the budget. In fact, an annual appropriation is just that--it provides no insight whatsoever into what Congress might think is required in the out years, when the real budgetary issues would emerge, if they do at all.

Overall, this section strikes me as less a serious policy discussion than a political slap at the administration, by one of the first high-level NASA officials to be canned by it, and by a disgruntled physicist (and science advisor from the previous administration) unhappy that science is not the be-all of the program.

I've glanced through the rest of the thing, but I think I've covered the major flaws in it already. What's actually most notable to me is that they completely ignore the potential for private passenger flight, and commercial space in general (other than bemoaning the impact to the satellite industry of export restrictions). Given how badly they've misdiagnosed the problems, their prescriptions have little value. In terms of providing a basis for administration policy, my own recommendation is that it be simply filed away--in a circular receptacle.

I see little reason to revise that review today. George Abbey shouldn't be allowed anywhere near space policy (though perhaps, at seventy six years of age, it's not something that he wants, or could handle at this point). It certainly wouldn't be change we can believe in. Or change at all.


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Carl Pham wrote:

Rand, it's an informing and cogent analysis. I wish you were wider read among the people who care about rocket stuff -- and there are a lot, hiding out here in the weeds.

I wonder if your cynicism about these people isn't too low. You speak of the way in which internationalization boosts costs while decreasing performance as if that's something they would oppose. But why? If you're an "internationalist" and Democrat big-gummint domestic-program type you'd like to kill off any yearning for national glory, or a transition to private space flight. That's not going to keep your union and government bean counter supporters employed, it's not going to keep the voters in the state of infantile helpless anxiety that makes them return you to office with more power to "fix" things next time, it's not going to let you keep space stuff to a showcase minimum by pointing out how expensive it is to get more serious, and it's not going to let you keep a lid on those troublemakers in private industry who don't think they need your guidance by pointing out how only professionals should be doing this stuff.

I mean, you seem to assume everyone would like to see humanity over the walls and loose in the Solar System. But you know that's not true. There are plenty who find that possibility distasteful, who prefer that we all stay neat and orderly in our little cages, and they're perfectly capable of a little fifth-column sabotage to keep it from happening.

ken anthony wrote:

I hope I live long enough to see the coming 'gold' rush to space. While governments are the big players now, I expect private companies to figure out economic incentives (without govt.) that will be the driving force in the future.

As long as people are willing to spend their own money to get to space there is hope.

Curt Thomson wrote:

You speak of the way in which internationalization boosts costs while decreasing performance as if that's something they would oppose. But why? If you're an "internationalist" and Democrat big-gummint domestic-program type you'd like to kill off any yearning for national glory, or a transition to private space flight.

Where is there a yearning for national glory? I don't see ANY evidence of that. I think they are way more interested in using NASA and our existing space infrastructure for earth-first activities. For increasing focus on our fragile, depleted, over-populated, exploited, tragically warming, blah-blah-blah planet earth. From that perspective I think anyone with a history of commitment to manned-space would be a positive.

kert wrote:

How about John Carmack for an administrator ? ! Now that would be change !

Josh Reiter wrote:

I think Steve Jobs as administrator could bring us the iRocket. Although you'd probably still have to install Quicktime+iTunes to use it.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on November 13, 2008 6:43 AM.

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