There’s little disputing the fact that complex government space missions are beset with soaring costs, often due at least in part to management issues, but few have gone so far as to suggest the U.S. civil space program is in danger of collapsing under its own weight.

Daniel Baker says costs have gotten so out of control, not only for spacecraft but the rockets used to launch them, that the U.S. government literally risks driving itself out of the business. Space projects need to become more focused, with emphasis placed on value for money, he says.

Constrained budget environments like today’s tend to bring calls for closer interagency collaboration, but Baker urges caution on that front. He co-chaired a National Research Council panel that released a report late last year concluding that joint programs are inherently more complex and expensive than those pursued by a single agency.

Baker spoke recently with Space News correspondent Leonard David.

What’s your overall assessment of the health of the U.S. space program?

Very much on my mind now is the out-of-control nature of cost growth in the space program. I am a strong believer in the importance of space science research and applying that to society. Yet the cost of the program is becoming so great that I think we’re pricing ourselves out of business. I think the space program is going to sink under its own weight right before our eyes. You see it both on the military and civil side … that costs are growing exponentially out of control.

What can be done about this in the near term?

I just think that the whole space program was, and should be again, based on timeliness, nimbleness and responsiveness to answering questions as quickly and efficiently as technically possible. We need to strive for the greatest scientific bang for the buck. All I’m trying to say is let’s make the most out of this rather than let it sink in a dire way. I think we’re at a very important crossroads. I don’t want to paint too grim a picture. But on the other hand, it’s time for some serious self-inspection.

To what degree do rising launch costs play into your worries?

Access to space is difficult. There’s going to be almost no free energy left in the system for Earth and space science missions that we want to pursue. I think it’s going to be potentially fatal to planetary science and perhaps astrophysics.

One of the themes I’m trying to relentlessly pursue is emphasis on the smaller end of the spectrum where things are affordable. We need successful development of launch vehicles like the Falcon 9, the Taurus 2, as well as restoring some health to the smaller launchers.

What is the single most important message coming from the study you co-chaired regarding collaborative missions?

When you really start to do joint development, the study says don’t do it. That’s the basic message. But if you’re going to do it, you better make sure you have things like very clear lines of authority and a short list of objectives. There’s a need to make individual agencies understand what their roles and capabilities really are and stick to what they are good at, and keep it lean and as efficient as possible. We have to maximize the bang for the buck, whether that’s on the civil, commercial or military side.

We would be doing ourselves a big favor if we all were pushing toward that, rather than all these other purposes the space program is now serving. To oversee that this happens would be a natural thing for the Office of Science and Technology Policy or Office of Management and Budget.

So currently there’s no single entity that has been providing objective oversight of interagency programs?

The mechanism is not in place. The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite program is the poster child for this. There’s a checklist of things that you have to look for. Congress ought to be asking questions when programs are set up. The individual agencies should be asking themselves whether they are living up to what they’ve signed up to do. The resources need to be there and all this well coordinated. We need to step back and look at what’s wrong with our procurement system, the management system and review processes that tend to drive all of this. Ultimately, it takes more adult supervision to assure that this is being done across the agencies.

Is NASA being asked to do too much?

That’s one of the things. There are realms of NASA. One is doing what they really like to do and excites them, specifically pushing back frontiers and doing gee-whiz exploration. The other is to be the trucker for the nation. They hold everybody’s hands and make sure that all the agencies that need space somehow get serviced so they can do their jobs and get their products. Those are two very different aspects of what NASA is about.

Another part of the problem for NASA has been immense risk aversion, the fear of failure. It’s laboring under that fear and that drives you toward more and more reviews, more and more paper, more and more process orientation. One of the ironies of this whole business is that the more you fear the risk of failure the more likely you are to fail. Let’s find a more rational way to do the applied side of the space program, one that’s the most innovative, the lowest cost, and pushes down to the lowest level of complexity possible.

What role can universities play in helping the U.S. space program make better use of its resources?

I would say the universities have been the engine of innovation in many ways. We’re out here, not beholden to a particular system of doing things. However, we’re being forced more and more into a mold if we want to work with agencies.

But I do believe the universities have a great deal to offer … a way to maintain vigor in the program. I don’t think the university community is blameless either. We try to push the frontiers. So there’s probably some science and requirements creep. There’s a need to empower everybody to get the greatest scientific bang for the buck, rather than the unbridled “we’ll spend whatever it takes to do this program.” Also, putting every conceivable bell and whistle on a spacecraft means that the price goes out of sight. To not contribute to the problem, the science community must show restraint, keep the mission focused, well-defined and on-topic.

You’re a leading solar physicist. How important is this scientific discipline to understanding climate change here on Earth?

The Earth is our most important planet. The sun is our most important star. I think those are pretty indisputable facts. Understanding the sun and its variability and its impact on the Earth and climate is the natural backdrop on which human effects are superimposed. There is a need to measure with as much accuracy as possible what is the solar variability. That record and maintaining that record is probably one of the most important activities you could imagine for science. We have to be able to look back 50 years, 100 years, even 10 years from now and say what was that variability … the role of the changing sun. Only then can we start to judge what the human-induced effects really are. We need to be able to take basic research and convert it into something that’s approaching real genuine utility to society.

We’ve heard a lot about the perils of relying on large, complex satellites for scientific research. To what extent can cubesats be used to answer scientific questions at a reasonable cost?

In many ways it’s a back-to-the-future kind of thing, a throwback almost to the very early part of the space program. In a very short period of time you can decide to do a simple, focused thing and do it with a handshake and a small amount of money and get results.

The question becomes, are you doing good science or an engineering demonstration? What’s the purpose it can serve? I think it is probably a very important part of the movement, a reversion back to the smaller end and more balanced part of the spectrum. Also, having a swarm of cubesats is a very important restoration of an appreciation for what measurements from many points, using small, simple instruments, can contribute.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...