In their own inimitable style, the latest NASA re-org has been trumpeted with the release of a platitude-filled announcement. A new Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has been founded to “be a catalyst for the creation of technologies and innovation needed to maintain NASA leadership in space while also benefiting America’s economy.” This new directorate will supervise a “portfolio of investment” in a variety of key identified technologies needed to send humans “to an asteroid and Mars.”
This event is not surprising, as technology development was a key part of this administration’s 2010 re-vectoring of the agency. Direction for the space program in part followed recommendations from the report of the 2009 Augustine Committee, which concluded that development of several new key space technologies were needed to enable human missions beyond LEO.
What, if anything, is wrong with this development? Why not use a fraction of the agency’s budget to develop all those great new gadgets that will allow us to forge ahead in space? In short, the issues in technology research are focus and pace. Are we developing the right technology and will it be available in a timely manner? Even more importantly, which technology needs are most pressing? This is not merely a question of organizational or economic efficiency but one of actually producing real flight systems for genuine missions –assuming, of course, that is your true eventual goal.
The agency has a long tradition of creating roadmaps, documents that lay out certain technical needs and wants and the order in which they will need them. Prior to the creation of this new mission directorate, NASA had an Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT), whose job was to set forth the paths by which certain technologies would be available at certain times. Apparently, the OCT will still exist, but under the new Associate Administrator in the new STMD. In fact, if you compare the “About Us” pages of the two offices, it is difficult to see much difference between them; they even highlight the same video. According to the press release, the “Office of the Chief Technologist also will continue to develop strategic innovative partnerships, manage agency-level competitions and prize activities, as well as document and communicate the societal impacts of the agency’s technology efforts.” So why create this new directorate?
I suspect that the real rationale for this newest layer of management and oversight is yet another attempt by the agency to convince people that we still have a viable space program and that we are going to forge ahead into the Solar System with a dazzling array of new and exciting machinery (“Phasers on stun, Mr. Sulu!”). It certainly is true that some new technology development is needed to move humans significantly beyond LEO, but much of what we need (at least for the initial steps) is already in hand. What is sorely lacking is the will to fly such missions.
Careful reading of the charter of this new directorate reveals a possible motivation for its creation:
By investing in bold, broadly applicable, disruptive technology that industry cannot tackle today, STMD seeks to mature the technology required for NASA’s future missions in science and exploration while proving the capabilities and lowering the cost for other government agencies and commercial space activities. Research and technology development takes place within NASA Centers, in academia and industry, and leverages partnerships with other government agencies and international partners. (link)
There’s that key word that we’ve seen many times before – “investing.” In other words, the new directorate will dole out money. Once again, the agency widget shop is open for business, with NASA Centers, academia and industry being the recipients of this taxpayer largess. NASA’s mission statement is flexible: “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.” Note well: space isn’t even mentioned in that mission statement – such a broad, unfocused direction makes it entirely suitable for funding technology development that doesn’t take NASA beyond low Earth obit, but redirects its ever shrinking budget to administration favorites like Earth observation and other various and sundry “green” directions.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with developing technology, but it should be done with purpose. Unless you know exactly what you need and why you need it, you may build the best new widget available anywhere, but it may have no practical use or benefit. Traditionally, whenever the agency “invests” in technology, a lot of hobby shop projects result. If the widget doesn’t work at all or as well as anticipated, the design can be modified during next year’s proposal cycle. On the other hand, if we are trying to build a real flight system, we have specific capability and performance goals that must be met on some schedule. These goals act as a forcing function to make decisions, complete a development, get balky equipment to work, and conduct a flight mission. In other words, we get the development of useful technology by setting requirements and flying missions, not by funding somebody’s science fair project. True enough, pure research sometimes leads to promising breakthroughs, but such happens more often by chance than by plan – you might develop something useful eventually, though having a deadline more likely will lead to a technology breakthrough, than would random spending on somebody’s idea for the latest gadget.
Thus, NASA joins the long roster of other federal agencies that have turned away from the actual accomplishment of some mission or activity to one that promises to develop the means to carry out some mission or activity. But this new path does offer one operational benefit to NASA – by “investing” in technology development, the undertaking of any actual mission can be indefinitely postponed. “We’re just not ready to go anywhere – we need (fill-in-the-blank) technology first.” There is less pressure on the agency to successfully conduct a space mission. At the same time, the new path serves two additional purposes – it throws up a smokescreen to make the public think that you are accomplishing something with their tax money and at the same time, feeds (i.e., funds) the people who are your principal constituents, in this case, those in academia and industry that approve of the new direction.
Much process and no product. America’s new normal.