NASA’s strategic direction: in need of new ideas

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Today the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing on the National Research Council’s new  report on NASA’s strategic direction.

I was not able to watch the live webcast of the hearing (the webcast is now archived here) – more precisely, I was able to watch but not hear the hearing because the webcasting service used by the committee often does not enable audio for Mac users. (That’s what a committee staffer told me.)

In written testimony, Constellation (and its follow-ons) was a favorite topic, along with NASA-corporate partnerships (I read: more subsidies). The focus was mostly on human space flight (not surprising, given that the outgoing committee chair is Ralph Hall, R-Texas; and the incoming chair is Lamar Smith, R-Texas). Written testimony, the hearing charter, and other information can be found here.

Some highlights from written testimony follow. Ron Sega, who co-chaired the NRC study under discussion, simply reviewed the study results in his testimony.

Consultant/lobbyist Bob Walker, a former member of this committee and a long-time advocate of the commercial development of space, called for more public-private partnerships (NASA-corporate) with companies beyond the established aerospace community. “Thinking in non-traditional, entrepreneurial ways potentially can access $10s of millions, perhaps $100s of millions, of private investment in NASA activities. If NASA programs and centers were to be restructured to take advantage of a flow of private capital, there is no end to the potential collaborations,” he claimed. “When the Go Daddy rover is traversing Martian terrain, we will be more solidly on our way to fulfilling our destiny in the stars.”

In the mid-1980s, while in Congress, Walker predicted that we would have a “trillion-dollar space economy” by 2000 due to the commercial development of space, as then promoted by the Reagan administration.  Walker was talking about commercial launching/space resource utilization/space manufacturing (not the satellite industry).

Marion Blakey, president, Aerospace Industries Association, said, “AIA believes that any examination of NASA’s strategic direction should include consideration of the health of the U.S. aerospace industrial base to ensure that our national space capabilities for U.S. government and commercial markets remain second to none.” (This is, of course, what AIA exists to do.) “By maintaining stability in objectives for NASA programs, and proactively strategizing equitable management of possible fiscal austerity at NASA, the industrial base can be put in a position to succeed for the benefit of the nation’s security, science, and exploration programs.” She offered plenty of the standard rhetoric of advocacy for the space program – how space exploration is good for the nation, for STEM education, for spinoffs, and so on…. “In order to succeed,” she asserted, “NASA needs stable long-term investment and steady policy goals.” I’ve been hearing witnesses say this same thing in congressional testimony since 1983. At this point I’m assuming that given our political system, such stability is likely not possible.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and also a long-time advocate for the commercial development of space, as well as the human settlement of space, defended the Bush administration’s Constellation program, advocated for the human return to and settlement of the Moon, and called for deleting language in President Obama’s 2010 national space policy calling for human missions to Mars and an asteroid. “Given clearer policies and closer agreement between the White House and Congress, NASA would be in a better position to implement its assigned missions.” (Pace did not offer any thoughts on how we might get there….) “Legal support for the private utilization and exploitation of non-terrestrial materials and functional property rights should be part of [government] incentives for space commerce and development,” he said, echoing a long-standing position advocated by the National Space Society. “The NASA budget is a political choice – it is a reflection of what the United States values as a society,” Pace opined. “Put another way, the Obama administration’s stimulus program was greater than NASA’s budget from 1958 to 2008 – in constant dollar terms.” (I’m not sure whether this latter statement might be meaningful to anyone who’s not already a space fan. Even I value putting people to work and rebuilding infrastructure more highly – much more highly – than I do space exploration.)

Thomas Zerbuchen, professor of space sciences and aerospace engineering and associate dean for entrepreneurial programs at the University of Michigan, suggested that the way that NASA can survive this “period of limited resources” – he assumes, it appears, that, at some point in the foreseeable future, resources will not be limited – is to “to ensure that a talented workforce will be available and that innovations and technology breakthroughs are pursued.”

It remains to be seen whether NASA, Congress, and the White House will respond to the NRC’s recommendations.

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