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Despite evidence NASA’s bureaucracy is continuing to resist any meaningful reform, in recent months one NASA department seems willing to recognize the advice of outside experts, a circumstance not seen at the space agency perhaps for decades.
Whether Michael Griffin, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s new administrator, can or is even willing to extend such openness throughout the agency’s entire management remains the $64,000 question.
First, some history and context. A long time ago, on May 30, 1987, I was co-chairman of an event in New York City called the Challenger Space Fair.
Inspired by the tragedy of the shuttle accident the previous year, the local chapter of the National Space Society, of which I was chairman at the time, organized a science fair for elementary school students with a focus on space exploration. It was held at the Intrepid Air & Space Museum.
We named the science fair after Challenger to honor the memories of the astronauts who had lost their lives when the shuttle was destroyed less than two minutes after its Jan. 28, 1986, launch. We also hoped by memorializing the heroic actions of those astronauts, we would inspire children to consider the wonders and challenges of science research and learning.
Our original plans called for a NASA astronaut to be keynote speaker. To our frustration and surprise, NASA’s public affairs office expressed disinterest, if not hostility, to the idea of a space fair named after Challenger.
To them, such a name only reminded the world of the agency’s failures. Rather than memorialize that tragic event, they instead seemed eager to forget it, making believe it never happened.
After much futile pleading, followed by some desperate networking, we finally were able to get former astronaut Terry Hart to volunteer. Having retired from NASA to work in the private sector after his one space mission on Challenger in April 1984, he did not require NASA’s approval to appear and did so gladly.
This personal experience – combined with the Challenger report that described how NASA’s management had contributed to the accident – was the first evidence for me that NASA no longer was the open-minded, innovative, and creative organization it had appeared in the 1960s.
As the years passed, this skepticism about NASA only increased, fueled by the space agency’s inability to build a shuttle replacement, the management failures that led to the Columbia accident, and the continual apathy and apparent resentment toward outside independent organizations that NASA could not control.
Fast-forward to today. In the last four months, not only has one top level NASA manager, Rear Adm. Craig Steidle, asked for the advice of outside experts, but NASA also has even co-sponsored or participated in several independently run events.
For example, since the early 1980s, the National Space Society, headquartered in Washington, has run an annual event, dubbed the International Space Development Conference, in which the organization tries to bring together industry experts, scientists and space advocates to discuss methods for encouraging the exploration of space.
In all those years, NASA has never been a willing participant.
This year, however, the conference, scheduled from May 19-22 in Arlington, Va., is being sponsored by NASA, with the agency even running its own track of speakers. In fact, it was Steidle, now associate administrator for exploration systems, who helped encourage the sponsorship.
As George Whitesides, the society’s executive director, told UPI’s Space Watch, “The fact that Admiral Steidle said he would speak at the conference very early on I think is a large … reason why we’ve gotten so many great speakers this year.”
There also was the experience of Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of Space Frontier Foundation in Nyack, N.Y. Over the decades Tumlinson has been known as a strong critic of NASA.
As he said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Oct. 29, 2003, the agency “is bloated, self-preservation-oriented and is spending its time wasting billions of our tax dollars … The agency and its encrustation of existing contractors need to be totally re-vamped.”
Despite criticisms such as this, NASA’s lunar-exploration roadmap committee – co-chaired by Steidle and part of his exploration directorate – asked Tumlinson to put together a panel presentation for a March 30-31 committee meeting in College Park, Md. The roadmap committee’s goal has been to lay out NASA’s plans for lunar exploration over the next decade.
The members Tumlinson chose for his panel, none of whom worked for NASA, included individuals such as David Gump, president of Transformational Space Corporation, an industry consortium that includes people such as aerospace designer Burt Rutan, and Jim Muncy, a space-policy consultant and former congressional staffer.
The goal of their presentation was to persuade the roadmap committee the sooner they involved the private sector in the development of lunar bases, the more effective and permanent that exploration effort would become.
As Tumlinson told Space Watch, the idea was not to “spend our upfront money on pure science, but instead work on frontier-enabling activities that allow us to live and operate on the moon more cheaply.” He added, “In the long run, you’re going to get a ton more science because it’s going to be more economical to keep people on the moon.”
The presentations lasted almost three hours, including a long and vigorous question-and-answer session. At its completion, Steidle took the microphone and asked Tumlinson to keep his panel together so it could make further recommendations on commercial lunar-surface activities. Furthermore, Steidle wanted the panel to report directly to him.
“We were stunned,” Tumlinson remembered.
Just as important, the presentations caused the committee to reassess its conclusions. Since then, the appointment of Michael Griffin has caused some shuffling and reassessment of NASA’s strategic-roadmap committees. Nonetheless, Tumlinson’s group remains alive, able to provide advice to both Steidle and Griffin.
“A lot of these people really do want to get it,” Tumlinson noted. “Whether it’s because of the managers around them or the system they’re caught in, (they) haven’t been able or been free to think (creatively) until just recently.”
There are, for certain, many unresolved and very serious management problems remaining in NASA’s bureaucracy. It also is possible, thinking cynically, that Steidle’s actions were an attempt by NASA’s bureaucracy to co-opt its outside critics by inviting them inside, thereby neutralizing their opposition.
Still, this willingness of Steidle and his exploration directorate to reach out in recent months to outsiders for opinions, ideas, suggestions and concepts is very encouraging. It seems to be forcing the agency’s internal bureaucracy to face and deal with alternative approaches to space exploration.
If Michael Griffin decides to cultivate this behavior, he could be taking a big step toward reforming both NASA’s bureaucracy and its future efforts in space.
Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian and the author of “Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8. His most recent book, “Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel”.