Both for and against the Obama plan


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In my recent co-hosting stint on the John Bachelor Show, I asked David Livingston of the Space Show if he thought the aerospace community was polarized over the Obama administration’s effort to cancel Constellation and replace it with new private companies. “Pretty much so,” he stated without much hesitation.

This makes my position on Obama’s proposal somewhat unusual, as I am actually sitting right in the middle. I am both for and against the Obama administration’s NASA proposal, which might explain why my comments both on behindtheblack as well as on the radio have often caused the blood to boil in people on both sides of the debate. This fact also suggests that there is a need for me to clarify where I stand.

For almost fifteen years, since the publication of my first book, I have been arguing that the government space program run by NASA has been a failure and a problem. In this USA Today op-ed from 2003, I argued that NASA should be shut down and the money used to offer big prizes to private companies for doing the same thing. In my book Genesis, the Story of Apollo 8, I wrote that the rebirth in space exploration “will happen under the banner of freedom and private property.”

To restate: NASA is a big, centralized, Soviet-style government entity funded not by profit given freely by satisfied customers but by tax dollars coerced from those customers. Thus, it is bureaucratic, top-heavy in management, slow to improvise, and very inefficient.

This is not to suggest that the engineers at NASA are incompetent. Far from it. Some of the most brilliant people work for NASA, and their ability to solve difficult engineering problems is illustrated every time we watch the space shuttle lift off and then return safely home. The problem is that these engineers work for NASA, a government agency, and that this reality effectively stifles their ability to do their best work. And I know from numerous off-the-record discussions with numerous NASA employees that most people at NASA agree with this.

Letting private companies compete to provide the U.S. government the services and products for getting into space is the fastest, cheapest, and most effective way to build a robust aerospace industry. In fact, it is this very approach that built the United States. It is also the approach that takes the best advantage of freedom, by not dictating from above the kinds of designs these competing companies must use. Instead anything anyone comes up with that works is acceptable. Such freedom encourages innovation, which in a new industry is absolutely essential in order to discover the best ways to do things.

Thus, the proposal by the Obama administration — to shut the NASA manned space program down and then subsidize private companies to help jumpstart them so that they can eventually replace and even improve upon NASA — is identical to my own beliefs.

The problem is that I simply do not believe the Obama administration. Everything I have learned about the current President, including the specifics (or lack thereof) of his proposal, tells me that none of his promises are going to be fulfilled.

First, Obama himself has previously expressed a hostility to NASA and the space program. Early in the campaign in 2007, when he was not yet well known and could be more up front about his real beliefs, he stated that he believed NASA was a low priority and that the money would be better used to fund education programs. Though his more recent speeches have lauded the importance of space exploration, they have not been convincing to me. His words have seemed hollow and cliched.

My doubts were further substantiated by the new National Space Policy announced in early July. As I noted then, the sense I got “from reading the Obama policy is a focus not in pushing outward to explore the unknown, to go where no one has ever gone before, but on looking back at the Earth to make things on Earth better.” More proof came with the statements of NASA administrator Charles Bolden shortly thereafter in his interview with al-Jazeera. His priorities — as expressly assigned to him by President Obama — was to inspire kids, improve international relations, and help the Muslim world, not invigorate the American private aerospace industry and explore the solar system.

Then there is the Obama administration proposal itself. As it is often said, the devil is in the details. A close look strongly suggests that the subsidies for the new private companies will never occur.

First, the details are vague, if non-existent. The budget plans say the administration wants to commit a lot of money to several high-technology flagship missions, but lay out absolutely no specifics on what those flagship missions will be. Nor do they provide any specifics for how they intend to help the new private space companies develop the manned capabilities to replace the shuttle.

Second, the way the Obama plan was announced and marketed has demonstrated how incredibly tone deaf this administration is to political needs. The decision to kill both the shuttle program and the Constellation program at the same time is wrenchingly drastic, especially during these very bad economic times. Obama is putting tens of thousands of people out of work at a time when new jobs and new investment are hard to find. And he is doing it in many Congressional districts that face reelection in November.

The death of both these programs at the same time also leaves the United States very vulnerable. It will be years before we will once again have a capability for putting humans into space. In the interim, we will have to rely on Russia to get our astronauts to our own space station, which instantly raises some serious national security issues.

Thus, it is not surprising that almost no elected official has come out publicly to support the Obama plan. Instead, the reaction from Congress has been loud and extraordinarily hostile. In fact, the Obama administration has played the political game so badly that it is very possible Congress will not approve anything they propose, and will instead try to push back with their own proposals that will make a mess of everything.

From a political perspective, I might have believed the sincerity of the Obama administration proposal, including the decision to cancel Constellation, had they simultaneously announced that they would extend the shuttle program a few years until the new private companies could get up to speed. Such a compromise would have gone over well in Congress, as it would have eased the job losses. It would have eliminated the need to rely on the Russians to reach orbit. It would eased the transition from the government manned program to the private manned program. And it would have demonstrated that the administration really does consider manned space exploration important. The result: the administration would have probably had little problem selling the proposal to Congress, thereby increasing the chances that the money would have been there to fund the development of the new private rockets and spacecraft.

Instead, Obama wants to shut everything down, immediately. He is resisting any compromise proposals being offered by Congress, even from members of his own Democratic Party. And he has issued a new national space policy that suggests space exploration is the least important thing NASA does.

Thus, in the end, I do not believe that the Obama administration has any real interest in stimulating the aerospace industry so that the United States can be a strong player in the exploration of the solar system. Instead, I conclude from their actions that they intend to kill that industry, thereby also killing the ability of America to explore space.

It is for this reason I have been so critical of the Obama budget proposal. And until I see some indication that the administration finally recognizes that their proposal is causing terrible havoc in the American aerospace community, I will have no reason to change my mind.

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13 comments

  • Another_Bystander

    Superb analysis Robert!
    I could not agree more.
    Your new website is fantastic and a greatly appreciated by the readers here.
    Nice Job!

  • Bob, I think your comments have nailed the situation quite well. I have been interviewing people on both sides of the new policy proposals since August 2009 re Augustine and the Obama plan re The Space Show. Those that support Obama space usually fill in the details from their wish list of understanding but the specifics are not from what I can tell, actually written in any official document. Also, there has been lots and lots of name calling which I believe to be counter-productive but that is the subject for another post.

    The confusion, the lack of leadership, the stupidity and as Bobby Block said on The Space Show several days ago, the fact that the plan was bad politics, a point you also make, has really hurt matters, not made things better. From what I can tell with all my mail and feedback coming into The Space Show, the Al-Jazeera interview was most hurtful. And as one of our NewSpace friends told me earlier today, it pulled the rug out from under those supporting the Obama plan.

    One can assume stupidity,inexperience, or a “secret” agenda that is actually being fulfilled, or as you suggest, President Obama has no real interest in space let alone human spaceflight. Whatever the reason for all this, its damaging to his plan as well as to our civil space program.

    Another point worth mentioning is our over all economy. We have promising and developing private space companies that need to attrack capital investment for R&D, future missions, their ultimate success. We must have an economic climate in the United States that supports risk investment and entrepreneurship. When we tax our wealth and capital away for government programs, we remove it from working in the private sector, or large parts of it. As the civil space program flounders and NASA is laughed at or worse because of things like the Al-Jazeera interview, it has the potential to spillover and hurt the developing space companies, their plans and efforts.

    There are many undesirable potential consequences from the actions of the administration. Like most rational people interested in space, I pray and hope like mad these adverse consequences never come to pass. But I don’t have a great crystal ball so all I can do is see dangerous areas and times ahead, not predict their arrival or even if they will arrive. But we all should be aware that there are great risks out there for space programs right now and the administration and made many of those risks more likely – at least in my opinion.

    Your post was right on. I agree with you. Hope and wish list thinking is insufficient for building a quality space program, commercial, civil, or any space program. We need wealth creating and pro business/investment policies and we need to quit undermining our space efforts. The Obama plan to focus on commercial is the right one. I am not a supporter of the cold turkey all or nothing approach but we have to think and go commercial to reduce our space access costs. As to the best way to do that, we can certainly debate the issues just as we should be debating timelines, goals, destinations, etc. And finally, if space is as important and valuable and beneficial as we in the space community know it is and can be, damn it, we should be able to fund it appropriately. So there is clearly a huge disconnect from how we in the community see space and its place among us and Congress. Yes, they have lots to balance and consider but ask anyone in the space community, giving space a priority for funding and development can only serve to strengthen the US across the board.

    Great new website Bob. Keep up the excellent work and commentary. Maybe you should write an Open Letter to President Obama with some positive suggestions for how he might turn things around. When Simon and you asked me that question on the show Saturday evening, I gave you a cute, funny response but the question is too important for that. Go for it, an Open Letter to the President outlining what he should do in your opinion to create the type of program all of us want and our space-fairing nation.

  • Bob,

    I also agree completely with the analysis. As I have also said, it is either sheer incompetence or intentional neglect. I have worked for NASA Contractors for 16 years and I too think that privatization is required. As I pointed out on my blog this week, there is a science to change management. If Obama truly wanted this to succeed he would have used the proven steps to gain political consensus and transition to the new vision. But he did not do that, which suggests that he has no intention of seeing this through. Furthermore, it is clear that he now intends to use the infighting at NASA and the Republicans (who are being accused of being just as socialist for fighting to save Constellation) as justification to significantly cut funding for NASA.

    I have sent my open letter to congress and the president. I agree you should too. Meanwhile, I am working with the local huntsville space professionals to see if there is anyway the private sector can salvage America from this fiasco and privatize anyway. God help us.

    Mark

  • I forgot to add: It did occur to me that the problem here in the proposed “plan”, if you assume that he wants America Space to succeed, is that this proposal requires the structure to be completely turned upside down. It is not that NASA gets smaller or has fewer roles, it is that he wants the roles to completely reverse. For 50 years, NASA has been building the big rockets and fundung contractors to build the pieces and develop the technology to make them work. Under the new paradigm, he wants NASA to develop the technology and companies to use those to build the big ships. And then he wants NASA to buy rides. It is completely not thought out at all. Why would private companies want NASA to develop the technology? How will the NASA choose which technology it will spend taxpayers dollars to develop and for which companies shall NASA perform this service? Why this company over that one? The whole “plan” is illogical.

    The only way to do this is to find a way to allow existing companies to use existing assets and resources and own them. They must improve efficiency and find markets. NASA must allow those markets to be exploited. Remember, it was NASA which disallowed commercial payloads on Shuttle flights. They have prevented the market from forming.

  • Kelly Starks

    Dear Mr Zimmerman,

    I pretty much are with your points. Having worked at NASA and on programs for NASA for over half my 30 year career, I agree there are a lot of really bright folks there, excellent facilities, but Mired in civil servant bureaucracy. Its worth noting that few of the folks at the NASA centers are actual civil servants –but they often are the top managers, and a font of obsolete ideas and idiocy. I fully understand why though Government should do as little as possible, paying to push the frontiers of knowledge, explore territory, and keep the nation as a leader in science and technology is one thing it should do. But having civil servants do that, is nuts. NASA succeeded so well in the ‘60’s because the civil service rules were waved and they could hire and fire as needed, and pay what it takes to get the best. That NASA is gone.

    Also like you I’m in the middle of both proposals. Constellations big program, with a hard destination they must reach is the minimum NASA needs to function. But the implementation is a colossally wasteful mess of designs that were subpar a half-century ago, tailored to maximize pork in the right districts. Staggeringly wasteful of money and time; at best, it keeps the US spaceflight infrastructure intact, if still needing a major remodeling by managers who weren’t idiots driven by petty politics.

    I long dreamed of a Pres setting up NASA more like DARPA. To state and define the big task and subcontract all of it out and let commercials do it. With the efficency and cutting edge ideas possible in corporate environments, for the price planed for constellation you could make a good start on the shuttles, space stations, and moon base in the movie 2001. Had Obama changed the Vision of Space Exploration, by charting out the desired goals, and issued a RFP for the construction, maintenance, transport infrastructure, and operational support for 25 years of a 50person Moonbase. I would have been ecstatic. At lower finds and quicker schedules a truly inspiration result could occur, and as a side effect the infrastructure and equipment for a true space industrialization.

    But instead Obamas canceled all Constellation – or s trying to, laying off not just the vast bulk of NASA related to space flight and exploration – but all the industrial staffs and infrastructure. Literally eliminating anything to build a program up from later. But clouds it in vague comments about greater programs a decade or 3 away.
    In the mean time is spent on research programs – virtually devoid of research in any new fields or technology. Literally all the most critical needs for major efforts in space are ignored. However, with great fanfair programs are announced to research the technology to field systems – that have been used operationally for decades. The epitome of NASA at its worst. Studies with no goals or needs to drive them.

    As for the space community, they rapidly broke into factions. Disagree with anything one assumes – your tared with the derogatory assumptions of the other.

    The Obamanistas fearcly support the revolution and read between the lines of what Obama says – everything they wish him to have said. They hear promises of commercial contracts, assume this must mean a plan to do the full Vision for Space Exploration with all new space contracts; but really he promised nothing of the sort – and was suspiciously careful not to say anything that could be seen as such a promise, and he carefully set up the contracts so really only the old big players could possibly be qualified for them – and they were far to small to support any economical implementation. Everything rushed through – with no specifics, or time to nail down any real details. As well as already loading them with so much pork, Commercial crew and the rest of the ISS support projects, will cost much more preflight and per year then the shuttles cost, but with much, much less capability.

    Pointing any of this out however is futile since your words are drown out in howls of heresy, and assurances that the only possible reason you could possibly disagree with Obama is (not that you’re a racist) that you’re a socialist motivated only for pork. No desire to retain the infrastructure or assembled skills is taken at all seriously. Surly of the tens of thousands to lose their jobs under the new faith, New.Space can hire all that will really be needed – all who are not dead wood.

    So your assumed to be loyal to comrade Griffin and the old socialist NASA. Course they attack as well on any suggestion mear commercials could do a space program. Utterly ignoring the fact that every function of running it has always been contracted out to commercial teams. Commercial designed built, serviced, and launched all the ships. Designed and built the centers. Trained the crews. Planed the missions. So why wouldn’t they be able to do it without the dated upper NASA management (infamous for lethal shortcomings over the last few decades) to hold their hands?

    I hoped Bolden’s Al Jezeera interview would tear the mask off. There’s no plan for big programs to follow (explaining al the current shutdowns as merely resetting the stage for a bold future), there is just the pork to keep folks quiet, and a focus on PC feel good posturing about studying climate change and political outreach. But the faithful still see only their vision. Meer facts are tests of their faith.

    …And the whole infrastructure and capacity of the united state to have a real space program is torn apart while the new space advocates applaud.

    I kept remembering Napoleon’s warning not to assume conspiracy for what mere incompetence could explain. But I have to agree with you, especially after Bolden’s interview and the White Houses support of it – I can’t avoid the thought the plan was to trash so much of our ability to ever do a space program, that no such “wasteful” plan can ever be considered again. That our aerospace industry isn’t “green” enough to want to keep.

    Not that I don’t hope commercial space can develop, but at this point its far from sure, and trashing the capabilities in space of a Boeing and Lockheed/Martin, doesn’t really make the future brighter for a Virgin Galactic or Bigelow.

    Sorry this rambled on so long, but I’ve dreamed of helping build a real future for humanity in space since I was a little kid. I seriously fear the US may exit the world stage of space in the nest few years.

  • This exactly the same as what I said about Walt Cunningham.

    http://quantumg.blogspot.co

    Allow me to paraphrase you both “I like their goals but I don’t believe they’re really dedicated to achieving them.” Uhhh… wtf? Seriously? Ok, here’s a suggestion, TELL THE WORLD THEIR GOALS ARE GOOD. Get the public behind those goals and demand they hold them to their word. If you just slag off the administration, all you’re doing is giving ammunition to the people who disagree with the goals.

    In short, if you agree with the goals then you’re on my side and if you’re on my side I don’t want you attacking the administration that has adopted those goals. Keep your “I dunno if they mean it” negativity to yourself please.

    Finally, there’s this:

    The budget plans say the administration wants to commit a lot of money to several high-technology flagship missions, but lay out absolutely no specifics on what those flagship missions will be.

    Argh!! I have linked to the documents which clearly detail the FTD program so many times now. I’ll link to them again:

    http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/458817main_FTD_IntroductionToTheMissionAndTechnologies.pdf
    http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/458818main_FTD_SolarElectricPropulsionStage.pdf
    http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/458813main_FTD_AutomatedAutonomousRendezvousAndDockingVehicleOverview.pdf
    http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/458815main_FTD_EnvironmentControlAndLifeSupport.pdf
    http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/458814main_FTD_CRYOGENICPropellantSTorageAndTransferMission.pdf

    This is NASA not MTV, you have to actually read stuff.

    Thank you and good night.

  • Ferris Valyn

    Bob, a few questions

    1. Prior to the last 2 weeks, you seem to have had only 1 piece of data that is “proof.” The early education proposal. Were you as suspicious before those 2 data points came out? I am also curious as to why the other campaign discussions don’t weigh in at all? Or were there other data points that you were looking at?

    2. The details have not been non-existant. Or didn’t you see the Laurie Leshin slides? Because I thought those did a pretty good job of laying out specifically what tech the flagship missions will be addressing

    3. The shuttle cancellation wasn’t Obama’s proposal – that he got stuck with. So why does he get the blame for that?

    4. Why is the does everyone seem to consider the April 15th proposal not a compromise?

  • Cherronesus

    What President was Quoted having said “Space is our highest priority, regardless of how hard the economic situation is in the country. Space will always remain our priority. This is not just somebody’s interpretation, it’s our official state position. I am here in my presidential office and when addressing you, I can confirm again the significance of space for the government”.

  • Cherronesus, Dmitry Medvedev. :)

  • Actually it is a shame that is has come down to a fight between Obama’s flexible plan to nowhere and Constellation because they’re both wrong.

    Turning LEO over to commercial enterprises is the right thing to do. Killing Constellation was a good move … replacing it with the flexible plan to nowhere was a bad move. The reality is that we have had about 40 years of the flexible plan to nowhere and that’s exactly where we’ve gone … nowhere

    Under Griffin, NASA twisted the VSE to into a rocket project. He lost sight of the goal and was focused on the process. The important thing was to get boots on the ground but he was more interested in reinventing the wheel.

    Now we have Obama’s flexible plan to nowhere which is what we have been doing since the last Apollo mission … round and round, always looking down.

  • Aside from killing Constellation, exactly which “goals”–aspirations is a better word–provoke serious disagreement? Show me the guy who holds as explicit principle the idea that rockets should be expensive, launches should be rare, and no one should ever, ever make a buck off space, and I’ll show you the cardbox in which he lives.

    FY2011 falls flat because it stakes thousands of jobs on a bet that commercial can do what the cheerleaders say it can do (whenever the cheerleaders bother to get specific, and bother to talk about something other than SpaceX), all the while not even specifying a reason why we need to spend billions on the launchers in the first place. That’s not Obama’s fault; it’s Augustine’s. Indeed, it’s a failure of the entire space advocacy community. Since no one’s actually going to cut NASA spending, the question becomes even more academic. Keep the buffet open for ATK employees and suppliers or divvy up the savings between sky watchers, climate changers and rocketeering jobs that don’t even exist yet. Guess who wins.

  • Because it’s not. It’s a giveaway to the ISS crowd and the Sagan types. It’s a somewhat okay investment in NewSpace, but only if you’re not quite committed to the idea that space has something to offer other than “firsts” and a mess of novelties that, when compared to the billions sunk into deploying them, don’t add up to a hill of beans economically. The only crowd that “loses” is the only crowd Congress is committed to defending–the Shuttle supply chain.

  • Chris Kirkendall

    Bob & all –

    It’s disheartening to see all the folks who really want something exciting to happen re: manned spaceflight breaking off into different factions & pointing fingers at each other. I do think it’s pretty clear that Obama only half-heartedly believes in a space program in any form (if at ALL), and Bob, I think you nailed it there.

    One thing is for SURE: There’s practically ZERO probability of achieving any goal unless it’s clearly stated & supported 100%. Can anyone imagine a football coach telling his team “Well, we don’t have a real well-developed game plan or even plays to run, but we’ll figure it out as we go”, and then going out & playing a road game against the reigning Super Bowl champs & having even a 1% chance of winning??

    I realize that we may be in a transition period here between a big gov’t-run program & numerous private enterprises, so any plan will necessarly be a little less than complete & will probably need a lot of flexibility, but it seems like at the very least we need some more concrete direction than what’s been put forth so far. I honestly think it’s possible we could easily become a 2nd or even 3rd-rate power in manned spaceflight. Even India has plans to launch manned spacecraft & theoretically could soon be ahead of us – how sad would that be? No disrespect to India – I’m impressed that they’ve progressed this far, but considering we landed men on the Moon 40 years ago, and soon may not even have the means to launch our own astronauts, this is a stunning blow to the once-proud U.S. space program.

    Let’s hope the upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 – Dragon launch is a big success & maybe we’ll at least be only a matter of months away from an operational launch capability. But our gov’t needs to let SpaceX & other private operations know they’re going to get full support, and most of all, funding…

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