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It's Alan Stern Day

First, over at the Gray Lady, he has an editorial on NASA's cost-overrun culture:

...the Mars Science Laboratory is only the latest symptom of a NASA culture that has lost control of spending. The cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the storied Hubble, has increased from initial estimates near $1 billion to almost $5 billion. NASA's next two weather satellites, built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have now inflated to over $3.5 billion each! The list goes on: N.P.P., S.D.O., LISA Pathfinder, Constellation and more. You don't have to know what the abbreviations and acronyms mean to get it: Our space program is running inefficiently, and without sufficient regard to cost performance. In NASA's science directorate alone, an internal accounting in 2007 found over $5 billion in increases since 2003.

As Allen Thompson points out in comments over at Space Politics, one could simply substitute names and nyms of (black) programs here, and write exactly the same piece about NRO. But I'm not sure that I'd agree with Dr. Stern's characterization that it is a NASA culture that has "lost control of spending." Was there ever any golden age in which the NASA culture had control of spending? After all, the agency was born in the panic of the Cold War, and developed a cost-(plus)-is-no-object mentality from its very beginning. The operative saying during Apollo was "waste anything but time." Sure, there have been occasional instances of programs coming in under schedule and within budget, but as Dr. Stern points out, the managers of those programs are often punished by having their programs slashed to cover overruns.

No, there is not now, and never has been a cost-conscious culture at NASA, for all the reasons that he describes. And this is the biggest one:

Congress should turn from the self-serving protection of local NASA jobs to an ethic of responsible government that delivers results.

Yes, it should. Well said. And with all the hope and change in the air, I'm sure that this will be the year that it finally happens.

OK, you can all stop laughing now. My sides hurt, too.

Unfortunately, that is not going to happen until space accomplishments become much more nationally important than they currently are, from a political standpoint. For most on the Hill, the NASA budget is first and foremost a jobs program for their states or districts. We can't even control this kind of pork barrelery on the Defense budget (including NRO), which is actually a real federal responsibility, with lives at stake if we fail. Why should we think that we can fix it for civil space? Only when we are no longer reliant on federal budgets will we start to make serious progress, and get more efficiency in the program.

Speaking of which, Dr. Stern also has a piece in The Space Review on how NASA can make itself more relevant to the populace and its representatives in DC:

The coming new year presents an opportunity to reemphasize the immediate societal and economic returns NASA generates, so that no one asks, "How do space efforts make a tangible difference in my life?"

The new administration could accomplish this by combining NASA's space exploration portfolio with new and innovative initiatives that address hazards to society, make new applications of space, and foster new industries.

Such new initiatives should include dramatically amplifying our capability to monitor the changing Earth in every form, from climate change to land use to the mitigation of natural disasters. Such an effort should also accelerate much needed innovation in aircraft and airspace system technologies that would save fuel, save travelers time, and regain American leadership in the commercial aerospace sector. And it should take greater responsibility for mitigating the potential hazards associated with solar storms and asteroid impacts.

So, too, a more relevant NASA should be charged to ignite the entrepreneurial human suborbital and orbital spaceflight industry. This nascent commercial enterprise promises to revolutionize how humans use spaceflight and how spaceflight benefits the private sector economy as fundamentally as the advent of satellites affected the communications industry.

As he notes, this needn't mean a larger NASA budget--just a better-spent one. I particularly like the last graf above, obviously. I don't agree, though, that it is NASA's job to monitor the earth. It's an important job, but it's not really in NASA's existing charter, and I fear that if it takes on this responsibility, it will further dilute the efforts on where its focus should be, which is looking outward, not down. It should be left to the agency that is actually responsible for such things (or at least part of them, and expanding its purview wouldn't be as much of a stretch)--NOAA. If, for administrative reasons, NOAA is viewed as incapable of developing earth-sensing birds (though they couldn't do much worse than NASA and NRO have recently), NASA could still manage this activity as a "contractor," but it shouldn't come out of their budget--it should be funded by Commerce.

Anyway, I think that we could do a lot worse than Dr. Stern as the next NASA administrator. We certainly done a lot worse.

[Early afternoon update]

The NYT piece is being discussed at NASAWatch, where John Mankins has a useful comment.


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Jim Bennett wrote:

Speaking of Commerce, it will be interesting if Bill Richardson takes the Secretary's post there. He might be very interested in NOAA being the lead on the sort of expanded earth-sensing role that Stern describes. We can also expect Commerce's space office to take on a more active role in promoting commercial human flight and spaceport development.

Well, spaceports outside of New Mexico, not so much, maybe.

Mike Daley wrote:

Since this was on Drudge's front page today probably not new to you.
Just in case:
Red tape, overruns ground satellites
Billions spent on weather craft that may never make it to space

Rich wrote:

How much of the cost overruns can be attributed to NASA, and how much is due to the currency inflation that we have experienced over the last couple of decades is a question that we probably will never have an answer for.

And anyone who maintains that we haven't had significant inflation during this period hasn't had to live with my wallet.

Brett wrote:

I have feeling Gore-Sat II is going to be the main focus of NASA under Obama.

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