The House Space Subcommittee held two hearings on the U.S. civil space program in February – one where the strategic direction of the human spaceflight effort was discussed, and a second one dealing with the configuration of NASA as an executing entity for such policy. The somewhat understated subtext of both of these hearings is that our space program currently lacks coherency and strategic direction. In partial response to this state of affairs, Rep. John Culberson of Texas has proposed legislation (the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2015) to try and resolve some of these operational difficulties – legislation designed to reconfigure the existing interface between NASA and the executive and legislative branches of government. Many have given considerable thought as to why this bill is necessary and why it could be a solution to our ongoing space policy chaos.
It is clear from much of the discussion at these two hearings that despite repeated claims by the agency, no one believes that we are truly on a “#JourneytoMars.” This situation is in part technical, in that NASA does not have a well-defined architecture, or even a roadmap, to develop the technology to conduct such a mission. For example, the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) is widely recognized as a pointless distraction. But equally significant is that by repeatedly over-promising with rhetoric and under-delivering on actual spaceflight capability, the current incarnation of the agency has little political or programmatic credibility.
The basic source of our dilemma comes from the decision made by the administration in 2010 to unilaterally terminate Project Constellation (yet retain the planned retirement of the Space Shuttle) and to remove the Moon from the path of deep space human spaceflight – for essentially trivial and specious reasons (“We’ve been there!”). Congress had twice endorsed the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration in two separate authorizations – one while under control of the Republicans (2006) and one while under Democratic control (2008). This made at least the general exploratory path of “Moon-then-Mars” a bipartisan consensus, something rare and remarkable in Washington. True enough, the Constellation architecture had run into some technical (and hence, fiscal) difficulties, but none that couldn’t be solved. In any event, it was still possible in 2009 (when Obama took office) to adjust the architecture (in terms of funding, schedule and implementation) without throwing out the hard fought for and won consensus on strategic direction that the previous two authorizations represented.
Instead, the VSE was discarded and replaced with (essentially) nothing. Sure, there was talk about “flexible paths” and “asteroid missions” but nothing came of either idea. Although the Flexible Path was deceptive (a recipe for widget-making and strategic confusion), the possibility of a human mission to an asteroid was seriously examined – and found to be wanting. In essence, the problem is that the Orion spacecraft (the only piece of the Constellation spacecraft left intact) is designed primarily for weeks-long duration cislunar missions, not for missions to an asteroid, which last for many months. When no near-Earth asteroid suitable for a human mission was found, the agency substituted a gimmicky plan to retrieve an asteroid and bring it back into cislunar space, there to be accessible by the spacecraft that we were still building (but not for its original intended purpose). But it could be said that we’d be flying beyond LEO, approaching an asteroid, examining it by humans who would then be able to bring a piece of it back to Earth.
In order to give the impression that a long-term direction was being pursued, NASA re-embraced (again) human Mars missions as their “ultimate goal.” This gambit retread has two advantages: 1) it simulates continuity, as Mars had always been assumed to be the eventual destination for human missions; and 2) it is so far into the future that no one need worry about how to do it or figure out how to pay for it – the perfect government program. A space goal that is more than two decades away might as well be non-existent. In such a situation, any space activity, no matter how idiotic or worthless, can be rationalized as a step within a “technology roadmap” that would eventually enable us to achieve that “ultimate goal.” A long-range plan with no specifics is infinitely malleable; no one can prove that the ARM is not relevant to future Mars missions. This ludicrous situation has been carefully re-packaged by NASA – along with a large helping of public relations glitz – into their current “#JourneytoMars” campaign, a hodge-podge of real hardware and fake missions, with a thick icing of Hollywood schmaltz (The Martian).
This very real and dismal state of affairs is the kind of situation targeted by Culberson’s bill. In his plan, both the President and Congress would appoint eleven members to a “Board of Directors.” This board would meet quarterly to review NASA’s progress and recommend changes or shifts in emphasis. The board would consist of space professionals – people who work, or who have worked, in the area of space science and engineering (with the idea that these members would be qualified to understand, judge and pronounce on technical merits of a given spaceflight proposal). The board would also conduct special studies and reviews on any topic about which the Congress or administration had particular concerns.
Along with having advisory oversight, the Board of Directors would have considerable influence over the program. Specifically, the board would be responsible for helping to select the agency Administrator (and Deputy), who would serve a ten-year term of office. This selection would come from a list of nominees provided by the Board to the President. Presumably, this arrangement would assure that the Administrator would be technically knowledgeable enough to steer the agency onto the right tactical path once a strategic direction had been articulated, with special attention given to seeing that they remain on the planned path. Interestingly, the proposed legislation also provides that the board can recommend the Administrator’s “removal for cause” – for being unresponsive and/or ineffective. This provision in no way eliminates the ability of a President to fire an existing administrator for reasons of their own. In addition, the Board would have one other significant power – it would devise a yearly recommended budget for the agency, independent of the one drawn up by the administration’s own Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Both budgets would be submitted to the Congress for consideration, with the executive required to explain any differences that exist between the two.
This last provision is quite interesting and no doubt could be the source of a lot of mischief, depending upon how Congress reacts to the possible submission of two wildly divergent budgets. A memorable moment came during Thursday’s hearing (1:19:30 of this video) when former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin stated: “Anything that can be done to ameliorate and control the influence of the OMB on the process would be welcome. The OMB is a haven for largely unelected, unappointed, not very well qualified staff who seek to exercise a level of power and control in their area that their accomplishments have not earned.” Griffin’s pointed statement is indicative of some unhealed wounds from past battles between parts of the administration and the agency.
The intent of the proposed law is to insulate the agency from some of the more devastating political winds of change – assuring that strategic decisions are made for good technical reasons. Since the new arrangement reduces the power that the executive holds over NASA, they will likely oppose it. In part, the desire and purpose of the bill is to make NASA a less political agency, similar to the FBI, whose Director is also appointed for a 10-year term and is not directly tied to a given administration. But it is also desired that good scientific and technical oversight be brought to the agency, a proposition I am sympathetic to, having recommended in the 2004 Aldridge report the re-establishment of the National Space Council, a White House group designed to watch over and make sure that NASA properly implements a chosen strategic direction.
Our current mess has deep roots and complex causes, but is largely the result of unilateral action taken by an administration that, without consultation, discarded a strategic direction that Congress had collectively agreed upon. At the hearing, Griffin commented that the 2006 and 2008 authorizations were “good strategic plans” and wondered why Congress did not act when the President casually eliminated them. In point of fact, the 2010 NASA authorization reiterated the goals of the VSE, specifically mentioning the critical role of cislunar space, including the lunar surface. This direction was ignored by the agency, wherein it became a thought-crime to even mention any possibility of human crews going to the lunar surface. In the subsequent rough-and-tumble of operational plans being submitted to Congress, that defiance of the “return to the lunar surface” mandate was papered over and lost in the subsequent noise of everyday government operations.
Culberson’s proposal is interesting in many ways. It would provide some needed technical oversight to the agency and spread the political responsibility for success (or failure) on a few more shoulders. I would be surprised if this proposal was accepted by the administration, seeing as how it would reduce their power and decision-making role. But the bill is a good point of departure for a debate on how to structure and conduct a realistic, cumulative, multi-decadal program in a government dominated by short-term, political battles. The NASA of the Apollo-era worked because there was an agreed national purpose to human spaceflight. The idea of national purpose no longer prevails, as battles and debates over Moon vs. Mars, human vs. robotic, and government vs. private are perforce ideological and thus, eventually political. I will be watching with interest as Rep. John Culberson’s Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2015 bill moves though the Congress.