No bucks, no Buck Rogers. It’s one of the tritest phrases in space policy debates, often used to wheedle more money from doubtful taxpayers.
Well, I don’t know if you’ve looked outside of your cubicle lately, but that isn’t going to work this time around, no matter how pretty the PowerPoints. But we still want to do great things, and send explorers to cool places. So we have to ask ourselves: How do we get a bigger bang for our Buck Rogers bucks?
One obvious tool is to harness private capital as well as public resources to those tasks where synergies between private and public needs are possible. But that requires doing the government’s business in a way that allows and even encourages those private energies to flourish. To do that, NASA must use the most innovative and streamlined contracting methods at its disposal, rather than fall back to the tried-and-failed comfort of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).
Although if applied correctly these rules can result in successful development programs, acquisitions of services and products and new technologies, far too often they are applied to programs simply to allow government managers maximum and intrusive control of the process — rather than allowing the vendor or contractor the freedom to focus on successfully delivering a desired result or product. It is the misuse of these rules that has often led to million- and billion-dollar cost overruns and the failure of innumerable projects and programs — and frankly the current disastrous state of our federal space program.
Some in NASA are trying to change this state of affairs, and with some success. Canceling some of the failures of the old methods such as Constellation and Ares was the first step. Now they are trying to get creative with novel and streamlined contracting methods that allow the commercial sector to do what it does best — deliver amazingly creative and lowest-cost solutions and innovations rapidly and in a way that creates wealth and jobs. If these methods and concepts are applied correctly we can have an ever exciting program of exploration as the agency, freed of the space wagon’s yoke, ventures forth to explore new worlds and as a bonus get a thriving commercial space industry that throws open the airlock of space to citizens and businesses, with permanent U.S.-founded communities beginning to grow in orbit and beyond.
To begin with, NASA has a responsibility to be a good customer. This means one that knows what it wants when it walks in, how much it wants and how often, and what it wants to pay — and is willing to work with the vendor in creative ways to achieve its goal without micromanaging the process, changing its mind constantly or rewriting the deal in midstream. This is very difficult for almost any government agency, and one reason our nation is trillions of dollars in debt. To do so agencies must declare their intentions, define their needs and delineate their budgets clearly and simply. And they must resist the urge to control every aspect of the project! This will result in the absolutely best product being delivered to them at the absolutely lowest cost in the absolutely shortest amount of time.
For example, as they demonstrated in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, NASA engineers partnering with commercial space companies can achieve a lot for a little if they’re clear about and aligned on their goals and strategy for pursuing those goals.
The next step is carrying humans to orbit on commercial vehicles so we can stop pouring hundreds of millions into the Russian economy by buying rides on Soyuz vehicles and create a new industry and jobs here at home with our hard-earned tax dollars.
This Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program started out following the COTS model. But, of course, flying astronauts to the international space station is a slightly more emotional matter for NASA than delivering supplies. Flying an astronaut from Earth into orbit may seem clear-cut, but NASA has 50 years of sometimes painful history doing that, and it’s almost impossible to push back on the agency’s well-intentioned “help” if the project is set up using a contract that allows it.
Along the way, common sense is being tossed out the airlock in favor of a need to control and manage the process. Each day more of that old bias towards cost-plus, “let us meddle and control ’cause we’re NASA and you’re not,” is creeping in, and the program has already become far more complex than is needed. The page count is growing daily on its guidelines and specifications. NASA managers are beginning to poke into the detailed operations and routines of the spaceflight firms at levels that are forcing more costs and hiring on their end to answer all the questions, and the program is teetering on the edge of slipping into the cost-plus spiral.
This is very bad for NASA, because at a time when its budget is starting to shrink, every dollar spent going that first 200 miles is one the agency can’t spend on the next several million. By overly managing the process whereby the commercial sector can deliver its explorers to their starting point, which is now low Earth orbit, they are slowing down and making much more expensive those same astronauts’ ability to leap out beyond the Earth’s orbit and explore. This is also bad for the birth of a commercial U.S. human spaceflight industry, as it forces extra costs and complexity on a system that must remain streamlined in order to usher in new commercial markets to spread costs over more customers.
Flying people into orbit is a well known and well understood process. Its success, be it on a government vehicle like the shuttle or a commercial spaceship, is a clear case of “know it when you see it.” Either the astronaut or passenger has arrived alive, unharmed and had as pleasant a journey as possible or they have not. Simple. We do it millions of times a day to and from government airports across the country, and although space may be a more demanding environment, needing more complex technologies and systems to support the trip, it is no longer about rocket science — it is about space transportation operations.
NASA came up with the COTS system to enable the development and fielding of commercial space transportation systems for payloads, followed by contractual methods to enable the commercial space sector to deliver routine payloads to the space station at low cost with high efficiency. The plan is working, even as it negotiates the normal obstacles any new approach has to overcome.
So why not do it again? Why toss out what has worked? Forget trying to coddle a culture of failure and financial irresponsibility. Let’s for once focus on repeating a successful model, rather than abandoning it for one that was designed for the inner control freak in the system.
Ironically, whether NASA adopts this approach or not, U.S. commercial firms are going to be flying private citizens into orbit in the next few years at competitive prices and in relative comfort. And one can bet they will do everything possible to be as safe, reliable and regular as they can. They have to or their industry will die. That’s how it works beyond the gates of the agency. Wouldn’t it be ironic if NASA was still flying astronauts to orbit on Russian vehicles that wouldn’t meet today’s CCDev specs because none of these commercial ships fits their model?
I know that NASA is trying to do the right thing, despite outside pressures from Congress and the resistance of a culture decades in the making. To those pushing ahead towards the goal of low-cost, regular and safe access to orbit, I say, “Bravo!” To those trying to clog things up with paperwork and their own need to meddle and control, I say: “Drop the specs and back away from the FAR.” Relax; employ common sense. You already have a tool that works. Adapt it but don’t let it morph into something antithetical to its purpose. It worked once, and it will work again. Combine COTS and its incentives to quickly and affordably develop systems that serve your needs with a simple “buy the ride” purchase system and everyone wins. We’ll save lots of bucks — and that means we’ll get more Buck Rogers.
Keep it simple, keep it common sense, and in a surprisingly short time, astronauts on their way to work at the space station or to board ships headed for the Far Frontier beyond Earth orbit will be able to kick back, relax and “leave the driving to us.”
Rick Tumlinson is an entrepreneur, writer and consultant in the space industry.