A Space Pseudo-Program

Step right up, folks!  Got a space program to sell to you!

Step right up, folks! Got a space program to sell to you!

A half-century ago, historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin writing in his book The Image, took note of and characterized a societal trend that he found disturbing.  Genuine accomplishment was being gradually replaced by what he termed the “pseudo-event,” something seemingly real but in actual fact, an occurrence representing no significant accomplishment or any real milestone.  According to Boorstin, a pseudo-event has four characteristics:

  • It is not spontaneous, but planned.
  • Its principal purpose is to be reported and thus, it is arranged for the convenience of the media.
  • Its relation to any underlying reality is ambiguous; parts of the event may somehow relate to genuine accomplishment, but that relation is either uncertain or unknown.
  • It is intended as a self-fulfilling prophecy – it is important because its promoters proclaim it to be so.

Boorstin was concerned with both the increasing triviality of cultural and political discourse, and with the rise of the cult of celebrity in America.  A classic example of the latter at the time The Image was published was the career of Zsa Zsa Gabor, a minor Hollywood starlet whose main claims to fame were being married nine times and appearing on television talk shows to brainlessly chat in a Hungarian accent.  Yet when pressed, most people who had heard of her could not say exactly why she was famous.  She was simply famous for being famous.  For younger readers who know nothing about Zsa Zsa, think of Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, or Snooki.

Recently, I’ve been struck by how closely Boorstin’s concept of the pseudo-event describes the current sorry state of our civil space program.  Specifically, the program is more notable for what it purports to be (or for what it says it intends to become) rather than for what it is actually doing.  For as long as I can remember, the alleged “ultimate destination” for people in space has been Mars.  The agency endlessly talks about it, even when they are specifically told not to.  Enshrined in agency lore is the belief that every space activity must ultimately contribute to the attainment of Mars.  If we talk about going somewhere else, such as an L-point or NEO, it is always in preparation for (ultimately) a human Mars mission.

The NASA human Mars mission is the archetypical pseudo-event for space.  With the Vision for Space Exploration, the mission of using the Moon to learn how to live and work on another world was specifically laid out in the founding announcement of the program.  But as far as NASA was concerned, getting to Mars was the only reason we were going to the Moon.  Thus a lunar return morphed into a touch the Moon and go to Mars event thus becoming, yet again, another too expensive and summarily axed move beyond LEO.

NASA has become a master of the space pseudo-event.  The announcement of a new mission or objective becomes the event.  We’re not really going to an asteroid – we’re just announcing that we’re going to an asteroid.  We don’t actually have to design the machines and build the equipment to do a mission – we’re on a flexible path.  We’ll simply have endless committee meetings and produce PowerPoint shows and high-quality CGI graphic animations of people visiting distant space destinations.  The absence of flight hardware doesn’t mean anything – we are developing technology to be able to do it “eventually.”  The media has become the message.

While this modus operandi certainly applies to NASA and many of its programs, it equally (and in some ways, more so) applies to many “New Space” companies, whose announcements of spectacular new vehicles, missions and programs continue on a monthly basis.  Recently, we have been regaled with tales of suborbital tourism on a routine basis, unlimited wealth extracted from near-Earth asteroids, national pride trips to and from the Moon for a variety of countries, and giant vacation resorts in Earth orbit where one can play weightless Olympic games.  Not only are we told that these wonders will soon appear but that they will be affordable for the vast majority of people.  No longer will space be the exclusive domain of government engineers and scientists – “Space-access power to the people!” is the clarion call to the uninformed.

In this sense, New Space is following in the footsteps of its governmental predecessor, only without having previously experienced the latter’s older record of actual accomplishment.  From a whole new set of providers, we now have pseudo-missions instead of real missions.  Instead of a space agency promising (but not delivering) expensive stunt missions by a few astronauts to exotic destinations, New Space is promising (and not delivering) cheap, meaningful and lasting space accomplishments for all.  Talk about a paradigm shift….

The net effect of the advent of a space pseudo-program is to make the average citizen (who thinks little about space on a daily basis but is broadly supportive of it) believe we are progressing in space, when in fact nothing is being accomplished except that some people are making a career out of pretending that we are accomplishing something.  We have a national space agency that doesn’t know where it is going or what it is doing.  Critical national spaceflight assets and facilities carefully built over several generations are being lost – decaying from neglect, being inexpertly mothballed or sold off.  A trained and dedicated technical workforce is disappearing like a vapor, as if it had never existed.  New Space companies cheer and proclaim the advent of a new era in spaceflight, but their launch manifests don’t begin to match the pace and predictability of their press releases.  Their endless demands to re-direct shrinking NASA funds to them belies their proclamation of being either “new” or “commercial.”

One of the most astonishing aspects of the space pseudo-program is how few seem to recognize its advent.  Shell-shocked by a continuous flood of misinformation, the public tends not to analyze news stories in detail, accepting them as the straightforward relation of new facts even though that function of the news media has long since become obsolete and is now more akin to cheerleading for their “team.”  New media (and this most certainly includes Internet journalism) eagerly regurgitates press releases and presents them as reality to the public, thereby hiding (willingly or otherwise) the essential hollowness of the U.S. space program.

Got a wild idea for a space mission?  You say you want to build a vacation resort on Jupiter?  Hold a press conference and you’ll have instant credibility as a space “entrepreneur.”  As for any skeptics in the audience – just ignore them or label them dinosaurs, old space fossils, cold-war warriors, senile, or shills for government space “pork.”  Got a difficult question for the space entrepreneur?  There’s the exit.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

The Moon landings are renowned for the fact that many believe they never happened.  What a remarkable development for American spaceflight – we once had a real space program that some thought was faked; now we have a fake space program that many believe is real.

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40 Responses to A Space Pseudo-Program

  1. Anthony J. Thinker says:

    Amen!!!!! and the final sentence underscores the comedy of errors promulgated by the current Administration since its inception in 2009!!

  2. JohnG says:

    I like your use of the snake-oil poster. Quite fitting for the new space hucksters. May I suggest a children’s book for further reading, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. What a perfect metaphor for our nation’s human spaceflight program.

  3. billgamesh says:

    “Got a difficult question for the space entrepreneur? There’s the exit. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

    I know ALL the questions they do not like. A trip to the library and a stack of books and after a couple weeks of reading up you can see right through all their scams.

    “The net effect of the advent of a space pseudo-program is to make the average citizen (who thinks little about space on a daily basis but is broadly supportive of it) believe we are progressing in space, when in fact nothing is being accomplished except that some people are making a career out of pretending that we are accomplishing something.”

    We need an HLV. And we need to fly it around once a month with most of the payloads soft landing at the Lunar Pole near ice. That is where Apollo left off and where trying to go cheap with the shuttle has left us.

    I am sick of hearing about Mars.

  4. To be fair, probably about 25% of New Space does have some minimal substance, but over the past decade the clear majority of them have never amount to anything beyond a press conference where they make grandiose promises and then beg for money from investors and NASA.

  5. Warren Platts says:

    Devastating….

  6. ZachC says:

    Excellent post.

  7. Warren Platts says:

    Well, actually, there is one real space program: Red China’s. They’re doing it step-by-step, cumulatively increasing capability. But this only proves your thesis in reverse, Paul: because they are not flooding the internet with Powerpoints of Chinese Moon bases, that entails that their Lunar plans are not real…. lol!

    Paul, my advice, is to take a page from the Wernher Von Braun/Alcibiades playbook, which is, it doesn’t matter who you work for, as long as they will pony up the money to make your vision fly.

    I hate to say this, but seriously, but maybe you (and me) ought to consider moving to China and work for their space program. I’m sure they’d love to have your expertise, and probably they pay better.

    It could be rationalized as an attempt to reform their system from within their system. Meanwhile, the furthered and enhanced success of the Chinese space program might light a fire under the arses of the Americans, eventually…..

  8. mike shupp says:

    Good post. Still, I gotta wonder… How many railroad companies announced in early Victorian England lasted long enough to lay some rail after they were formed, and how many actually went on to actually operate railroads for more than a few months? How many railroad companies in the United States? Or canal builders? For that matter, how far did the rocket builders of the late 20th century — Kistler, Rotary Rocket, OTRAG, Conestoga, etc. — push their plans along?,

    There’s precedent for this kind of hype, I’m thinking.

  9. billgamesh says:

    They did light off the gas generator from the F-1; but that kind of proves we do not have a space program when we start playing with parts from half a century ago.

    The article I read intimates that the 130 ton payload may be launched with kerosene boosters instead of SRB’s;

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130126093208.htm

    I believe I also read somewhere that the evolved SLS will not be reusing any hardware.
    We might as well have just kept building the Saturn V if they keep going like this.

    History repeats and the history of NASA suggests the SLS will indeed be a success but will it then be thrown away as LBJ commented the Saturn V was?

  10. billgamesh says:

    “How many railroad companies announced in early Victorian England lasted long enough to lay some rail after they were formed,”

    Author William Rosen writes that the English patent and court system allowed inventors to retain intellectual property and profit from it- and this was the true genesis of the industrial revolution. In an essay I postulate that the failure to allow nuclear energy to be used for spacecraft propulsion has had the opposite effect and kept us from colonizing the solar system.

    William Rosen, 2010, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, Random House

    IMO Nuclear Energy is to the Space Age as Steam was to the Industrial Revolution!

  11. Wonderful article Dr. Spudis:-)

    The irony is that we’ve actually spent some real money over the past few decades (over $200 billion in today’s dollars) going around in circles above the Earth simply pretending that we have a pioneering manned space program. If that money had been spent predominantly establishing a permanently manned outpost on the lunar surface, private industry in America would probably already be there making billions of dollars annually economically dominating cis-lunar space– and NASA would probably already have a permanent human presence on the surface of Mars by using lunar fuel and mass shielding resources to get there.

    A rational economically and politically sustainable manned space program that progressively moves this country forward will never happen in the US until NASA finally takes– the next logical step– of establishing a permanent human presence on the surface of the Moon.

    Marcel F. Williams

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Marcel,

      Although I would not argue that Shuttle was an optimum spaceflight system nor that ISS was the perfect orbital research platform, nevertheless we got quite a bit of capability with those systems and the programs taught us a lot about in-space assembly, servicing and orbital operations. The tragedy of Shuttle/ISS is not that >$200 B was spent on it, but that its earned value is currently being casually thrown away by the terminally clueless clowns in charge of our national space program.

      • I think its easy for people like myself, and others, to play Monday morning quarterback on the system choices that NASA and the politicians have made in the past. But my principal objection to the $200 billion plus spent over the past few decades is that those systems were prioritized for LEO activities and not for lunar base activities.

        Although I objected to the decommission of the Saturn V in the 1970′s, a Shuttle derived heavy lift vehicle (Shuttle-C etc.) could have been easily developed in the1980s to compliment the Space Shuttle for deploying larger, simpler, and cheaper space stations and for deploying manned and unmanned vehicles for a return to the Moon and for lunar outpost deployment.

        IMO, the Shuttle program could have been a golden age not just for LEO but for all of cis-lunar space.

        Marcel F. Williams

      • Robert Clark says:

        Why do you say that knowledge is being thrown away when the SLS is shuttle-derived?
        I gather from the pessimistic tone that you have doubts about the future prospects of the SLS. I’m more optimistic about the SLS and of human spaceflight. Knowledgeable industry insiders have said the final version of the SLS scheduled to deploy nearly two decades from now will never fly because of the long time lag from now and the large expense.
        However, the first version is scheduled just in 2017 so that version will very likely fly. Why I am optimistic then is that first version will very likely have greater capability than the 70 metric tons advertised. Indeed it should have enough capability to do a manned, lunar landing mission if using all cryogenic in-space propulsion.
        My opinion is that the closer this Block 1 version as it is called comes to completion, the more its true capabilities will be discussed and so also will be the more extensive missions it can accomplish

        Bob Clark

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Why do you say that knowledge is being thrown away when the SLS is shuttle-derived?

          Because the manufacturing, processing and launch infrastructure and personnel are being systematically dispersed. They cannot and will not be re-assembled easily or without great cost. Most New Space advocates rejoice in this destruction. I don’t.

  12. DougSpace says:

    If a pseudo event includes those announcements “for what it says it intends to become” then one would have to include Kennedy’s Rice University speech and Bush’s VSE speech.  Yet both of those were appropriate.

    It is appropriate to announce plans in order to attract investors and qualified workers.  My feeling is that what makes the difference between a legitimate announcement plan and a purely hollow one depends upon how likely the thing is to be accomplished.  So, for example, in Sept. 2005 Elon Musk announced plans to develop and launch the Falcon 9.  Well, he went on to do exactly that.  Later, he announced the Falcon Heavy.  Since it is based upon the demonstrated Falcon 9, I think that announcement entirely appropriate.

    Predicting what things will become real or not is naturally difficult.  But my feeling is that things like Stratolaunch, Bigelow, and PRI’s Arkyd-100s are reasonably probable — Mars One probably not.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      There is no comparison between the announcement of Apollo or the VSE with a typical New Space event. Both of the former were natural extensions of existing and proven capabilities — in the case of Apollo, the Saturn 1 was being built and had flown by the end of 1961 and the VSE was to use Shuttle-derived hardware and procedures. The selection of what is “reasonably probable” in New Space announcements is usually based on no proven flight experience or documented hardware. They are pseudo-events because the degree of genuine potential is uncertain.

  13. billgamesh says:

    “thrown away by the terminally clueless clowns in charge of our national space program.”

    Well, who are the people advising the president on space? Is there some conspiratorial clique that keeps us from spending money on HSF-BEO? Where does all the money go?

    13 may be the year of the comet; if that thing lights up the sky it may be the opportunity for another “set sail on this new sea” presidential speech that get’s us back into space.

    Kennedy announced the Apollo program and it stayed together through a couple administrations and then died after it’s original mission was completed. We need a mission that will never be complete.

  14. billgamesh says:

    “IMO, the Shuttle program could have been a golden age-”

    Completely agree Marcel- someone will write a book about why Sidemount never flew all those years when it is finally appreciated what a disaster it was to go cheap and leave a cargo version unfunded.

    I will probably get so mad I should not read it,

  15. Mark R. Whittington says:

    My sense is that a lot of the problem is that too many people are invested in projects, both government and commercial, that are likely not to meet with success. The mission to the asteroid is silly and, as the NRC pointed out, lack support even inside NASA. As exciting as enterprises like Planetary Resources and Golden Spike are, the chances of them doing what they propose to do are very slim. I certainly wouldn’t invest any money in them. But they are fun to watch and, maybe, one day, some starry eyed space entrepeneur will succeed, perhaps even without a government subsidy.

  16. Jim R. says:

    Dr. Spudis,

    Very good article. We’re doing little in long range planning because Obama is not interested in it. Exploring an near Earth asteroid by 2020 something? That’s fricking 10 – 15 years from now. There’s as much a chance of landing an American on the surface of the Sun as there is of a manned mission to an asteroid. The “New Space” folks will probably succeed in resupplying the ISS, may be provide private missions to space for the well-to-do (a small chance of space hotels in orbit). Anything more than that is probably too expensive for them to pull off. When the Chinese make a move towards the Moon, that’s when I expect the U.S. to get her act together.

  17. JimNobles says:

    Guys, if you want to get to the moon and do stuff there go ahead and do it. Thanks to the rise of commercial space launch costs are starting to become reasonable for many things that people want to do in space. The only problem is see is the attitudes of people who want Uncle Sugar to pay for everything for them. These days that’s a losing attitude.

    We have the internet and world-wide communications now. Gather up all the people who think about the moon the same way you do and figure out if you have enough resources to do something important enough to get the ball rolling in the direction you’d like it to roll.

    C’mon, stop pouting. Jerk yourselves into the 21st century. If you want to develop the moon then develop it and stop complaining because it’s harder to get into the wallets of taxpayers who don’t really care about developing the moon. Or possibly anything else in space because those taxpayers simply aren’t space cadets like we are.

    My advice is find everyone you can who agrees with you and see what you can accomplish together. And stop whining because people who don’t believe in what you want to do don’t really want to help you do it.

    Christ, sometimes the Old Guard sounds like a bunch of tearful little girls.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Some of us happen to believe that there are compelling national interests in having a useful civil space program. The purpose of lunar return is not simply to gratify the desires of space cadets — it is to claim a national and international right of access and use to trans-LEO space. If America is not on the Moon and not present in cislunar space, there is no assurance that commerce, free markets or any private sector development will ever occur in that area. It is not “pouting” or “whining” to point out that our current inchoate national civil space policy is a fraud and more than simply going nowhere, we are actively destroying the capability to do anything beyond LEO, where important national economic, scientific and strategic assets reside.

      Go ahead and bury your head in the sand and proclaim the advent of a new age of “commercial space” if you want. Some of us are not so easily duped.

    • There wouldn’t even be an internet, computers, computer programs, nuclear power, jet planes, helicopters, space rockets, or satellites if it weren’t for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. There would also be no America west of the Mississippi, and no Alaska if it weren’t for good government policies.

      A government space program doesn’t hurt the private economy, it helps to foster and grow it. There would be no Space X or ULA if it weren’t for our government space program. And we’d be a much smaller and poorer country today if it weren’t for those good government policies.

      Marcel F. Williams

  18. GH says:

    Paul; I think your message is clear and largely accurate. I do have hope that Space-X, Dragon, Boeing and their CST-100 and Dream Chaser will all come to pass. As far as Virgin and their suborbital vehicle, other than thrill seekers and thrills I do not anticipate real value whether their system does or doesn’t work. NASA’s problems seem to be beyond resolution with the huge amounts of money and time they are expending and the little accomplishment they have to show for it.

    My greater concern is, as you stated it that “the tragedy of Shuttle/ISS is not that >$200 B was spent on it, but that its earned value is currently being casually thrown away by the terminally clueless clowns in charge of our national space program”. I think it is mainly too late as most of that value has already been thrown away over the last 10 years, and it was thrown away by the people now in positions of power. Not only did they throw away the infrastructure but they threw away many of the workers, the knowledge and the expertise that made those programs succeed.

    For many of us who lived through and participated in Apollo, the words from the song “is that all there is” come to mind. I’ve lost hope that I will ever see that level of accomplishment again.

  19. DougSpace says:

    It would seem to me that if a company announced a plan and then successfully carried through with it then it wouldn’t seem fair to call that announcement a non-event. The Falcon 9 was announced six months before the failed first Falcon 1 launch. Yet eventually SpaceX went on to deliver on its announced plans. The deep pockets of both Elon and NASA had a lot to do with this. So, even though there wasn’t a proven track record at the time of annoncenent, it turned out to be true.

    Then there’s Golden Spike. The concept is based largely upon using existing booster and upper stage technology. Yes, they will need to develop their own lander but there is now a body of lander experience to draw upon. I think the key to determining if this is pie-in-the-sky or not is primarily the business case — will there be enough sovereign client demand to close the business case. If no, then nothing will come if the announcement. If yes, then maybe.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      My point is that with New Space, the reality does not begin to match the hype. Yet hold a press conference on a human Mars mission or some asteroid scheme and it is lapped up as though it were written on tablets from Sinai.

      • Mark R. Whittington says:

        Exactly right. All companies like Golden Spike, Deep Space Industries, et al have to do is to succeed. I would be the first to toast such an achievement. But would not invest money in any of these enterprises.

      • Ron says:

        NASA has many researchers who do studies on topics that are extremely unlikely to achieve fruition, or at least not within economically reasonable timeframes. As just a couple of examples, google “NASA low energy nuclear reaction LENR” or “NASA fusion direct conversion propulsion”.
        Although New Space reality might not match its hype, certainly that is not a phenomenon confined to New Space, and NASA often spends money to produce pretty PowerPoints and exciting graphics and videos that are, in essence, nothing but hype.

        (Though some might argue that it’s NASA’s job to do research and that it’s always good to have some folk looking way over the next hill, I have my doubts: what is the incremental value-add to the country of such research, given the boatload of existing far-future studies that already exist?)

        Similarly, the Russians are good at creating press releases, too: it seems every few months I see some description of some new Russian space effort that, in my judgment, seems very unlikely to ever happen.

        Your comments about New Space hype not matching reality are apt, but that’s hardly a phenomenon confined to New Space.

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Your comments about New Space hype not matching reality are apt, but that’s hardly a phenomenon confined to New Space.

          Apparently you did not read my whole post. Try again.

  20. billgamesh says:

    “My point is that with New Space, the reality does not begin to match the hype.”

    http://news.yahoo.com/playboy-club-space-latest-concept-space-tourism-190400977.html

    This is the reality and it is worse than the hype. Space tourism is about one thing and one thing only.

  21. JohnG says:

    I hate to say this, but seriously, but maybe you (and me) ought to consider moving to China and work for their space program.

    This isn’t as far fetched as some people might think. I hear that Robert Farquhar helped them with the Chang e’2 rendezvous of the asteroid Apophis.

  22. billgamesh says:

    “-you (and me) ought to consider moving to China and work for their space program”

    If they are building their own hydrogen propulsion technology from scratch it will take them awhile to play catch-up. Hydrogen turbopumps have to be about 10 times as powerful as pumps for other propellents and are expensive to make work right from what I read. Which is why private space wants nothing to do with hydrogen.

    We were actually working on liquid hydrogen technology way back in the 50′s for a recon bird called Suntan.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_CL-400_Suntan

    This hydrogen infrastructure gave us a jump on Apollo. The Chinese have mastered hypergolic propellents which is a big piece of landing on and coming back from the Moon- but they will need a Heavy Lift Vehicle with Hydrogen upper stages to depart Earth orbit with humans. There is no cheap even for the Chinese.

  23. denniswingo says:

    Paul

    Great article, you say publicly what many people say privately……

  24. Joe says:

    Hi Paul,

    Excellent article. I almost hate to add the following but it further illustrates your statement:

    “A trained and dedicated technical workforce is disappearing like a vapor, as if it had never existed.”

    Background:

    - The current EVA Pressure Suits used for EVA operations at the ISS (including required EVA maintenance) are reaching the end of their “shelf life”. Best estimates are the American capability to perform EVA’s with this hardware will expire at the end of 2015.

    - The Constellation Systems EVA hardware contract which still exists but has never been fully implemented has been left around sort of on “life support). Oceaneering Space Systems Division won the contract some years ago, which requires them to design, to build, to test, and to certify the “Constellation Space Suit System”, or CSSS which of course they have not been able to pursue due to lack of funding.

    - One of the purposes of the Constellation Systems EVA hardware was to (in addition to its lunar mission) make the needed replacements for ISS related EVA.

    - To attempt to fill this gap NASA implemented a small (underfunded) program called the Advanced Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) program. Trouble is that (again due to budget shortfalls) this would not lead to even manned flight testing prior to 2017 (leaving a gap of at least 1 to 2 years in American ISS EVA capability).

    - There has been some talk (though no action) of reinvigorating the Constellation Systems EVA hardware contract (that while basically dormant still exists) to attempt to alleviate the situation, but so far no actual action.

    - In the meantime the Advanced EMU project budget/staffing has continued to suffer losses, thus undoubtedly driving schedules further to the right (that is beyond 2017). That means more losses of contractor personnel with expertise in EVA hardware.

    When that 2 year (or likely more) gap appears the only way to maintain the ISS (if we indeed continue to do so) will be to buy EVA services from the Russians. If that transpires the pressure will be there to layoff the EVA operations planning staff as well.

    Not a fun thing to report, but that is the situation. We are right at the brink of losing any independent American EVA capability on the ISS or anywhere else.

    Joe

  25. billgamesh says:

    “We have a national space agency that doesn’t know where it is going or what it is doing.”

    The only place to go really is the Moon. Just the fact that once you leave LEO you are in constant mortal danger from a solar event means you better be on your way to a sanctuary. To go anywhere except the Moon you need nuclear propulsion and since that is not going to happen anywhere near the Earth this once more lands you on the Moon.

    What do we do on the Moon? I continue to be intrigued by the idea of Lunar Solar Power; ten years after Criswell proposed it there is a growing realization that it may be the only possible way we are going to have a western standard of living for an entire planet of 9 billion people.

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  27. numbers_guy101 says:

    It is beyond curious again that yet another article about our directions in US space exploration has been written that avoids the possibility of real progress within the limits of existing budget trends; trends that have been in play for most of NASA’s history (over 40 of the past 50+ years). These are not new budget trends. This is not news. All the comments have made the same omission. Everyone loves to talk about grand plans, but no one wants to talk about fundamental change, to get those plans accomplished within existing budgets.

    As a NASA engineer of 25+ years, I could see some hope in the 90′s when the difficult question of NASA’s future direction (after Shuttle) was being tackled. There seemed to be some acceptance of the need for real change back then. It was understood back then that change had to happen to go further, more often, for the same money, or probably less, that was already there. I should have realized that given the infighting back then over what “improvement” even meant that there was trouble ahead, especially once budget realities would assert themselves. I was naive to think this reality would eventually win over the culture into a realization of the need for change and reinvention. I figured the budget was like physics. Eventually everyone would realize that change was needed, as the budget was a given and could not be gamed any more than the rocket equation. But denial turned out to be the more powerful force. So far denial is winning. We will preserve everything we can, fight off change, and attack all things new, even if it means no possibility of space exploration at all. We will fund SLS and Orion systems that never add-up to produce space exploration, ever, in any relevant time frames, in any plausible budget scenarios. Denial.

    That the questioning would devolve into endless study over decades was bad enough. On this I agree with P. Spudis. Something far worse though runs far deeper in the organizational mindset. What I could see first-hand would sink the ship back then was the lack of interest in “improvement”. Sure, anyone could talk about “improvements” when more money was built into the discussion, but that was a symptom of avoiding improvement, of wanting to keep on doing everything just as it had always been done. Affordability was not going to be improved. Reliability was not going to be improved. Safety was not going to be improved. Flight rate was not going to be improved. It was just that going to the Moon, or Mars, was considered a defacto “improvement” over just going to orbit again. Innovating for affordability, to increase flight rate, thinking of new ways of doing business – those were improvements no one wanted to talk about. Why? Because those involved real change. This is the discussion that’s needed – about real change and reinvention; not getting caught up complaining about budgets or debating destinations and project goals. Reinvent the incentives and the attitudes; the rest will follow.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Guy,

      Some of us have described the achievable within existing budgets — the paper I wrote with Tony Lavoie three years ago was an attempt to do just that. The denial comes from entrenched interests who want to continue the existing dissipated efforts to go nowhere and do nothing. And many of these people work at NASA.

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