Tag Archives: NASA

The layoffs at NASA

More layoffs yesterday at NASA, this time at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Also, this report gives a good overview of all the layoffs so far.

One question: The authorization bill that passed Congress on Wednesday night specifically required NASA to continue construction of a heavy-lift vehicle, quite similar in concept to Constellation. Why then is NASA management laying off all these Constellation workers? Granted, the authorization did not provide Constellation with as much money as previously budgeted, but the layoffs seem greater than necessary at this time, considering the budget differences. Also, the lack of a final budget from Congress might require these layoffs to occur temporarily, pending a new budget, but NASA is not making it clear that this is the case. Instead, they are letting a lot of people go without giving them any guidance about NASA’s future plans.

If the Obama administration was serious about fulfilling Congress’s legal requirement to build a heavy-lift vehicle (as deputy administration Lori Garver said they were on Thursday), I would have expected them to be more forthcoming to these NASA employees, if only to encourage them to remain available for rehiring, for at least a short time. That they have not is very telling.

Do not expect this heavy-lift vehicle to be built.

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This NASA bill is nothing more than pork

A sampling of headlines today, describing the passage last night in the House of the NASA authorization bill:

Unfortunately, none of these headlines are correct. All of them are examples of what I call “press release journalism”, where the press writes its stories based on what elected officials and public relations people tell them, rather than what’s in the bill itself.

Though the bill that passed last night does authorize significant additional funds for the subsidized development of new private rockets, it unfortunately does not send NASA on a “new path” or “new policy.”

First and foremost, the plan very specifically requires NASA to build a spacecraft and launch capability very similar to what was being built under Constellation. To quote:

It is the policy of the United States that NASA develop a Space Launch System as a follow-on to the Space Shuttle that can access cis-lunar space and the regions of space beyond low-Earth orbit in order to enable the United States to participate in global efforts to access and develop this increasingly strategic region.

This system is to have a launch capability of no less than 130 tons, which would exceed the Saturn V and is about what was planned for Ares V.

Also:

The Administrator shall continue the development of a multi-purpose crew vehicle to be available as soon as practicable, and no later than for use with the Space Launch System. The vehicle shall continue to advance development of the human safety features, designs, and systems in the Orion project.

This essentially means that Orion, as designed under Constellation, will go on.

Thus, the only real changes to Constellation the bill provides are less money, a faster timetable (finished by the end of 2016) and the freedom to pick a new name for the system, so as to not embarass the current administration with a Bush space rocket.

Of course, NASA has the freedom to redesign Constellation, but given the short time schedule and limited budgets, I wonder if that will be possible. (There are those who think this is a victory for the Direct approach, whereby the new launch system is almost entirely based on the shuttle system, but even that concept is probably not doable, given the money and time frame.)

Thus, has anything at NASA actually changed? I don’t think so. In the end, what we are going to get from this new plan is the same failures we’ve gotten from NASA in its repeated efforts over the last twenty-five years to build a shuttle follow-on. To quote a column I wrote for USAToday back in 2004:

  • The National Aerospace Plane was proposed by President Reagan in 1986 during his State of the Union address. This cutting-edge technology, Reagan proclaimed, would “by the end of the decade take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low-Earth orbit, or fly to Tokyo within two hours.” After spending $1.7 billion, and building nothing, the program was canceled in 1992.
  • The X-33 was announced with much fanfare by Vice President Al Gore on July 4, 1996. The program was going to produce a single-stage-to-orbit reusable spacecraft. “This is the craft that can carry America’s dreams aloft and launch our nation into a sparkling new century,” Gore enthused. After five years and $1.2 billion, the X-33 was canceled when cracks were found in the spacecraft’s experimental fuel tanks.
  • During the same years as the X-33, NASA pursued the X-34, a smaller two-stage reusable rocket launched from a belly of a L-1011 jet, and the X-38, a reusable lifeboat for the International Space Station. After four years, more than $1 billion but little hardware production, both were scrubbed. [Note that the X-37 did come back to life under the auspices of the Air Force, who saw its value if NASA did not.]
  • In 2000, even as the previous projects were being put to the torch, NASA came up with another program, the Space Launch Initiative. For two years, the agency spent $800 million drawing blueprints for a plethora of proposed shuttle replacements. Nothing was built. In 2002, the Space Launch Initiative was scrapped like the rest.

In every case, NASA came up with plans that could not be built for the money available. Now, Congress has ordered NASA to build an updated Saturn V rocket, practically overnight and without sufficient funds. And it has asked this to be done by an administration that is uninterested in doing it, and has even shown a willingness to sabotage this project, when it can.

The result? I do expect NASA to spend all the money that Congress is giving them, passing it out to various aerospace companies, as it has done for the last few decades. Whether anything will get accomplished with all that spending, however, is very doubtful.

In other words, the bill passed last night is nothing more than the worst form of pork. At least with most pork projects, a new school or a better road system is built. Here, the taxpayer will spend a lot of money, and get very little for it.

The one glimmer of hope is the money authorized to subsidize the development of new private space rockets. Unfortunately, the bill requires NASA to strictly supervise the construction of these new rockets, to make sure they meet NASA’s safety standards and government rules. Such supervision cannot encourage the kind of innovation and creativity necessary to produce new rockets cheaply and efficiently.

Fortunately, the increasing demand for new and inexpensive launch services is going to counter this governmental interference. SpaceX’s amazing success with its Falcon rockets is evidence of this increased demand. So is the fact that Boeing has decided to dive into this market with its own manned spaceship. With increased demand comes increased profit, which — far more than government subsidizes — will pay for the new rockets.

Still, on the government side I suspect the end result of NASA’s new commercial development program will once again be a lot of money wasted. The new rockets will get built, but the American taxpayer is going to get screwed in the process.

Personally, if I had my druthers I would get the U.S. government entirely out of the civilian rocket building business. Let the private companies finance and build their rockets themselves (as SpaceX did with the Falcon 1), and when completed, let NASA then buy the services. The less say the government has in the design and construction of these rockets, the better.

Unfortunately, this fantasy is not going to happen. Instead, I expect the American space program to limp along for the next decade or so, dependent on the Russians (and eventually the Chinese) to get its astronauts to its own space station.

How sad.

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House will vote on Senate NASA plan

The space war appears to be over. Based on several news reports, the House will vote this week on the Senate plan for NASA, not on the House plan.

Despite this agreement in Congress, the future of NASA remains murky, at best. As written, this plan forces NASA to continue construction of some form of heavy lift rocket similar to the Ares I and Ares V it was building under Constellation, but gives the agency less money and time to do it. It also hands out a lot of money to commercial companies for so-called launch services, but outlines few details about how that money should be spent.

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House breaks without dealing with NASA bill

The House recessed today without dealing with the NASA authorization bill. Key quote:

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said votes on all bills were postponed until Sept. 29, when the chamber hopes to take up a stopgap spending measure, known as a continuing resolution, to keep the government running at present spending levels past Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends.

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Federal spending is out of control and NASA’s gonna get what it wants?

You think NASA’s going get money this year or next? Or ever? In one graph (see below), this article shows how completely out of control federal spending has become, beginning in 2007, with no end in sight. Key quote:

Until this skyrocketing spending growth is arrested and reversed, we suspect that government spending has become disconnected from the ability of any American household to support it.

out of control

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Bolden cleared by IG of ethical violations

Though NASA’s Inspector General has cleared [pdf] NASA administrator Charles Bolden of ethical violations in connection with his communications with the Marathon Oil corporation during discussions about awarding research money to a Marathon competitor, the IG also noted that Bolden’s actions were inappropriate. Key quote:

We concluded that Bolden’s contact with Marathon regarding OMEGA did not violate federal laws or regulations pertaining to conflicts of interest. However, we found that the contact was not consistent with the Ethics Pledge he, as an Administration appointee, had signed, and that it raised concerns about an appearance of a conflict of interest involving the NASA Administrator and a large oil company to which he had financial ties.

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NASA outreach to the Arab world

Keith Cowing and Frank Sietzen at SpaceRef report that NASA administrator Charles Bolden will soon be heading to Saudia Arabia, ostentively to continue NASA outreach to the Muslim world, with other less obvious motives pertaining to Israeli/Palestine peace negotiations. Key quote:

According to one of several sources knowledgeable on the subject “expect to see a wave of mid-level Administration appointees embarking on a round of carrot-and-stick sweetener overtures” to Saudi officials to entice them to join the Obama effort. For their part, the Saudi government wants the U.S. to exert greater pressure on Israel to stop construction of settlements in occupied territories that might someday be a key in a peace accord. In the meantime the Obama administration is trying to give the Saudis every incentive to craft a stronger relationship with the U.S.

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A look at the Washington Post’s take on the space war

The Washington Post today includes an excellent article outlining quite succinctly the mess that’s resulted from the space war between the House, the Senate, and the administration over NASA’s manned program. Key quote:

In an effort to restore a NASA consensus and fund future human space travel, negotiators from the House and Senate have been meeting frequently in recent weeks. Participants say, however, that the sides are dug in and that stalemate is a real possibility.

As I have been saying for months, don’t expect anything good to come from Congress, even if they come up with a compromise. Obama and NASA under Bolden did a very bad job selling their ideas to Congress, and Congress returned the favor by rejecting those ideas and instead coming up with two different plans, both of which serve their own parochial interests rather than the nation’s. The result is a micromanaged mishmosh that won’t get anything done, while wasting huges sums of cash that the federal government does not have.

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Our Debt Is More Than All the Money in the World

There is a lobbying push among a lot of space activists to get the House NASA authorization bill changed so that more money is spent for commercial space. Unfortunately for these activists, reality is about to strike (almost certainly on November 2). Also see this story: Our debt is more than all the money in the world.

With a new Congress almost certainly dominated by individuals who want to shrink the size of government, I doubt anyone in the space industry is going to get much of what they want in the coming years.

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Bart Gordon responds to Nobel laureates

The space war continues: On Friday the chairman of the House committee of Science and Technology responded negatively to the letter by 30 Nobel laureates demanding the House revise its budget authorization for NASA and accept the Obama administration’s plans for the agency. Two key quotes from Gordon’s response:

The hard reality is that the Administration has sent an unexecutable budget request to Congress, and now we have to make tough choise to the nation can have a sustainable and balance [sic] NASA program.

Reluctantly, the Committee came to the conclusion that the president’s new human space flight program, much like the current Constellation program, was unexecutable under the current budget projections and other NASA priorities we all agree must be addressed.

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