The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space recently held a hearing on a proposal to change how the NASA Administrator is selected and the agency is monitored. The bill (HR 823, The Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2013) is co-sponsored by five Republican Congressmen. It is a revised version of a similar proposal from the last Congress. In brief, it would establish a committee composed of “space experts” jointly selected by Congress and the Administration. This committee would nominate three candidates from which a NASA Administrator would be selected to serve a fixed six-year term (the last version called for a ten-year term). The new group would also monitor the agency’s progress in implementing whatever long-range direction was selected for the civil space program.
Although many details of this proposal remain obscure, I find the motivation for it interesting. Clearly, it stems from a belief that the current direction of the agency is aimless, unacceptable and in need of independent oversight. Moreover, I take the proposal for a committee-nominated administrator as a not-so-subtle rebuke to the current management of the agency. How and why did we arrive at this sorry state of affairs?
As described here earlier, the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was the previous administration’s attempt to give some long-range direction to the national space program. Former Secretary of the Air Force Pete Aldridge chaired a commission to study how NASA should implement the VSE. Their report outlined several broad recommendations designed to better enable NASA to execute the new direction.
One recommendation was for the re-establishment of the National Space Council. This body had existed twice before, first from the inception of NASA through to the initial development of the Shuttle, and then again during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, from 1989-1993. The Council provided strategic guidance to the President on matters relating to space policy – specifically, whether the agency was properly implementing a given program or strategic direction. In 1992, the Space Council decided that NASA was not implementing the “Space Exploration Initiative” and a change of management was needed, so the President replaced Administrator Dick Truly with Dan Goldin.
The basic rationale for having a National Space Council is that most people within the Executive branch and the Congress have neither the time, inclination, or background needed to monitor and make decisions on technical topics. Agency drift is less likely with oversight from a group that includes both technical expertise and political influence – individuals that can identify and correct misdirection early in the process, thus keeping a program on track. The Aldridge Commission wanted to re-establish the Space Council for precisely those reasons. The idea was not to create a panel to micro-manage the agency’s daily operations but to provide broad strategic oversight to ensure that NASA was implementing the Vision as intended.
Of the many recommendations of the Aldridge commission, the one to re-create the Space Council was pointedly ignored. That is not too surprising – no administrator wants some super agency authority looking over his shoulder. At the time, arguments against the need to re-establish the Space Council were twofold. First, it was planned that the Aldridge Commission itself would be called back together at regular intervals to review progress (that did happen – once). Second, the agency already had an advisory council (the NASA Advisory Council or NAC) that would serve the ostensible function of a Space Council. The problem with the latter argument is that the NAC is chosen by and answerable to the administrator and so tends to rubber-stamp whatever tactical path he takes. Furthermore, the NAC has no independent standing or influence to steer agency direction; it merely “advises” the administrator on tactical aspects of current programs.
As an example of the need for a Space Council, one need only recall how the agency went about re-writing their strategic charter in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the VSE. To recap that episode, one of the principal objectives of the VSE was to return to the Moon to learn how to use it to create new space faring capability (this “mission” was clearly articulated in the Presidential speech given at NASA Headquarters in January 2004). But by the summer of the same year, that original objective mostly had been forfeited, morphed by the agency into a “touch-and-go” on the Moon in support of an Apollo-style Mars effort. At the time, many involved in the effort pointed out the mismatch between the Vision’s objectives and the direction the agency had taken, but their concerns were ignored. Soon the idea that the VSE was in effect a human Mars mission became hardwired into both the architecture and the mindset of the agency, leading many in the space community, the media and the public to forget (or to never understand) the original rationale for lunar return – it was now misunderstood and described as a rerun of Apollo, not as a sustainable new approach to our space future by learning how to live and work effectively on another world.
On the basis of these impressions, after President Obama took office in 2009, he created a new committee to review the agency’s long-term direction of human spaceflight and its implementation. Given that the agency had changed the direction of the VSE, the conclusions of this effort were entirely foreseeable – we were going on (what they thought was) the wrong path (i.e., the notion that lunar return was simply a repeat of Apollo – confusion caused by the agency’s re-direction of the VSE had become the perception) and without the necessary funding (so they told us) to reach it. Although both of those conclusions were suspect (or at least arguable), they were used as the justification for a major re-vectoring of the agency. Now, several highly questionable decisions later, we have arrived at the current pitiful “going nowhere” state of the U.S. civil space program.
Thus, because of the lack of adequate oversight and action on how NASA management was implementing the VSE, we now have a national space program that is being dismantled and discarded. If the National Space Council had been established at the beginning of the VSE, as the Aldridge report recommended, their review of agency activity would have shown that the Vision was being steered in a different direction. Neither the Augustine report nor its subsequent destructive effects would have transpired if a Space Council had stopped this drift and helped to identify a rational, affordable, step-wise implementation.
The Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2013 will establish a national space council; it will be accountable to both Congress and the Executive (arguably an improvement over the old Space Council, which was strictly a White House body). The identification of “three candidates” for administrator is problematical – it’s not clear that a term of office for the NASA Administrator independent of the current administration would be acceptable to any President. However, the review and oversight function of a space council – to “keep NASA on track” – could be critical, as recent history has shown how easily the agency re-writes its marching orders to accommodate its own desires and interests, rather than to serve a national goal.
The agency’s misdirection and lack of focus have irreparably destabilized our national space program. Other space faring countries recognize that the U.S. program is adrift and floundering. They are offering their astronauts Chinese language classes and actively (and very publicly) courting involvement and association with China’s space program and leadership. China has moved steadily toward the goal of manned lunar access while America has retreated from that arena, content with fantasizing about a human Mars mission that won’t occur for many decades, if then. Rather than facilitating a strong American presence in space, our current administration has sent the world a strong message – that they are fine with the ongoing atrophy of national capabilities in human spaceflight. American space leadership has left the building and Congress is arriving late in the game in calling for legislation to preserve it.