The aero-industrial complex: Ike was right



At a meeting in the NASA headquarters auditorium in Washington, D.C., last month, I looked around and noticed that I was sitting in a sea of white men in grey suits. In the audience of about 200, I counted around 10 women.

(Was this situation unusual? No. Should it be? I think so.)

The talk at that meeting was all about a myriad of proposed technological means to far-flung ends in space, focused on extending human presence beyond Earth orbit.

I felt as though I’d been transported to “The Twilight Zone.” Or maybe I’d been scooped up by Mr. Peabody’s Way-back Machine. I was back in the 1960s, in the midst of the aerospace-industrial complex (or AIC, which is essentially the same thing as the military-industrial complex – more on this below).

With mergers and divestments and retirements, the names of corporations and corporate lobbyists change, but the nature of the complex does not. Like Grendel’s mother, the AIC lives to eat and eats to live. The AIC eats money, and it is indiscriminate in its appetites. It likes all kinds of money – civilian, military, domestic, foreign. Remember, as the late economist Milton Friedman explained, that the purpose of a business is to make money. Period.

So who (now that corporations have personhood) is the AIC? In fiscal year 2012, among the top 100 federal contractors government-wide (courtesy of the Federal Procurement Data System) were: #1: Lockheed Martin Corporation; #2: The Boeing Company; #3: Raytheon Company; #4: General Dynamics Corporation; and #5: Northrop Grumman Corporation.

For the same fiscal year, among the Department of Defense’s top 100 contractors(courtesy of AeroWeb) were:#1: Lockheed Martin, #2: Boeing, #3: Raytheon, #4: Northrop Grumman, #5: General Dynamics.

Among NASA’s top 100 contractors for that same year were: #1: the California Institute of Technology (operator of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), #2: Lockheed Martin, #3: Boeing, #4: Jacobs Engineering, #5: United Space Alliance LLC (owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing), #11: Northrop Grumman, and #15: SpaceX, at $256 million.

Yes, the “entrepreneurial” and “commercial” SpaceX is one of the newest members of the AIC. It ranked #7 on NASA’s top contractors list for fiscal year 2013 (at $355 million). For that same year, SpaceX ranked #88 on the top 100 federal contractors list (at $594 million).

At a public event in California last night, ex-astronaut and SpaceX executive Garrett Reisman said SpaceX is in the business of providing “service to the government.” When asked if SpaceX has more than one customer, he said, “Yes, but we’re not counting on that.” Reisman claimed that for an investment of only $200 million, NASA got a brand-new launch vehicle, spacecraft, launch pad, and test facility. SpaceX put in $600 million, he noted (with no mention of the value of NASA’s in-kind contributions to SpaceX projects).

According to Forbes, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk currently has a personal net worth of $8.7 billion. With a B. “Musk’s fortune has more than tripled in the past year,” says Forbes, “clocking in at $2.7 billion for 2013. Stock in Tesla Motors” – whose development was subsisidized by the U.S. Department of Energy – “is up 625% in the past year…. His privately-held spacecraft-maker SpaceX was reportedly valued at upward of $4 billion in March 2013.”

With money comes access, and with access comes influence. Space policy making is not a transparent process, alas. Many of my fellow space-policy wonks are as frustrated as I am over this administration’s closed approach to policy making, which makes it difficult to determine who is influencing the process.

If you’re interested in the AIC’s lobbying investments, see the Sunlight Foundation’s “Influence Explorer.”

Another asteroid hazard bites the dust


Credit: JPL

NASA’s near Earth object program reported this week that the only known near-Earth object (NEO) on its current Sentry asteroid impact hazard list thought to pose any risk to Earth over the next 100 years is now crossed off the list.*

2007 VK184, an asteroid about 130 meters in diameter, has been on JPL’s Sentry Impact Risk Page for several years, with an estimated 1 in 1800 chance of impacting Earth in June 2048. This risk prediction translates to a rating of 1 on the 10-point Torino Impact Hazard Scale. In recent months, 2007 VK184 was the only known NEO with a non-zero Torino Scale rating. (The Torino scale is a probabilistic risk assessment tool. While NEO observers find Torino ratings useful, they don’t mean much to non-experts. Some discussion is under way in the NEO community about developing new, non-statistical ways to characterize NEO impact risks. Stay tuned.)

2007 VK184 was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) at the University of Arizona in November 2007 and tracked by NEO observers for two months before moving out of view in January 2008. Last month, NEO observer David Tholen at the University of Hawaii looked for and found 2007 VK184. His observations of the asteroid led to reducing its impact risk from a Torino rating of 1 (“merits careful monitoring”) to zero – “no likely consequences.”

Ho hum, you might say. And right you are, for the removal of this object from the risk list was a routine process. What’s interesting about this routine event is that it shows how the global NEO monitoring system works efficiently. In the public discourse about NEO impact hazards, attention-grabbing statements about close calls, near-misses, and impending catastrophes seem more likely to draw attention than the more mundane business of 24/7 NEO observing and tracking. Predicting the orbital movements of asteroids is a largely mathematical enterprise….

Tholen sighted 2007 VK184 on March 27 and 27, using the 3.6-meter-diameter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii. Because the asteroid had not been sighted for almost six years, its predicted position was approximate. Nonetheless, Tholen was able to find it within the predicted search region. He forwarded his tracking data to the Minor Planet Center (MPC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

NASA’s automated Sentry asteroid monitoring system, run by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, retrieved the new observations of 2007 VK184 from the MPC database, computed a new orbit for the object, and updated its impact hazard assessment for it. These new calculations showed that 2007 VK184 will pass no closer than 1.9 million kilometers from Earth in June 2048, with no other close encounters predicted. JPL removed 2007 VK184 from its Sentry Impact Risk Page after it sent its updated calculations to the MPC.

As the Risk Page explains, JPL’s Sentry system continually scans the most current catalog of known asteroids and predicts potential hazards of impacts with Earth over the next 100 years. NEOs will disappear from Sentry’s impact risk page when sufficient data become available to eliminate impact risks. Objects typically appear on the Sentry Impact Risk Page because a limited number of available observations indicate a potential hazard of impact with Earth but do not allow observers to precisely define their orbital movements. Whenever a newly discovered NEO is posted on the Sentry Impact Risk Page, the most likely outcome is that the object will eventually be removed as new observations become available, the object’s orbit is improved, and its future motion is more tightly constrained.

While some may find this story unexciting, perhaps others may find it comforting.

Reminder: I’m a consultant to NASA’s NEO program. No one at NASA asked me to write this post, nor did anyone at NASA review it.