NASA 2005 – An Unfinished Play in Three Acts

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It is possible to think of what has happened to NASA over the past year and particularly to its implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration as a play in three acts — with its ending not yet determined, but with all the twists and turns that make for good theater. The quickly changing events to date in this drama are well known, but it is useful to review them to understand why their outcome is still unknown. What remains in question is whether the play will have a satisfying ending, or leave those who have watched it unfold frustrated by its denouement.

Act One, Exit O’Keefe

At the start of Act One last December, Administrator Sean O’Keefe announced that he would soon leave NASA. That created a cloud of uncertainty on what would follow as the act unfolded, but it turned out that O’Keefe and his associates had set NASA on a specific course that was soon to be abandoned. O’Keefe did not actually leave until late February, and represented NASA at the January meeting of heads of those space agencies participating in the international space station program.

NASA proposed there be a schedule of 28 shuttle flights by 2010 to complete assembly and outfitting of the international space station, even though the shuttle had not yet returned to flight following the Columbia accident. The agency heads endorsed this schedule, and based their representations to their political masters of what was to come on that plan. That created expectations that would later be called into question.

At the end of January, NASA’s exploration office sponsored a conference to review the agency’s activities in the year since President George W. Bush spelled out his vision.

A standing-room-only crowd heard NASA exploration chief Craig Steidle describe an evolutionary strategy for implementing the vision, centered on supporting a broad range of research and technology and concept-development efforts and a spiral-development approach to developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), with a fly-off between two contractors before the 2008 elections and the vehicle entering service in 2014.

In this strategy, NASA planned to select an external contractor to do “systems of systems” integration, and encouraged non-U.S. firms to partner with U.S. prime contractors in the CEV competition. At the conference, the many organizations which had received support from Steidle’s office also offered their thinking to date. In the subsequent weeks, a series of 13 road-mapping committees, involving a broad spectrum of U.S, and some non-U.S., individuals worked at identifying the best paths forward toward an integrated approach to space exploration

President Bush’s 2006 budget request , which was sent to Congress in early February, proposed only a 2.4 percent increase in the NASA budget, half of what had been planned when the vision was announced. This was seen by many as an early sign that the administration support for its vision was less than firm. The budget proposal included estimates for space shuttle operations especially in the years just before the shuttle was to be retired that were recognized by NASA and the Office of Management and Budget as “placeholders,” not reflecting the likely actual costs of shuttle operations until its retirement .

At the close of Act One, there was significant uncertainty over just where NASA was heading. For example, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee, opened hearings on the NASA budget in February by commenting: “There are a lot of fundamental questions that NASA still isn’t ready to answer. … They can’t tell us what research will be done aboard the station. They can’t tell us how many more shuttle flights will be scheduled. They can’t tell us how many people the CEV will carry or whether it will go to the space station. They can’t tell us what we might do when we get to the moon.” The curtain fell on an unsettled prospect for what would follow.

Act Two: Enter Griffin

As Act Two began, it was mid-April, and Mike Griffin had become the new NASA administrator. In the following weeks, most of the major players in Act One exited the stage, and most of their work over the 15 months since the Bush vision speech was set aside.

Griffin had thought a great deal about the best approach to space exploration since leaving NASA in 1993, and he quickly set to work putting his stamp on the agency. He started with the assumption that the president had set out the goals that NASA was to pursue, and that his job was to identify a clear path toward those goals, and in the process answer many of the questions raised by Rep. Boehlert (and numerous others).

He also believed, as he said in his confirmation hearing: “Those who claim that NASA cannot afford robust programs in both robotic science and manned spaceflight are mistaken. We as a nation can clearly afford well-executed, vigorous programs in both robotic and human space exploration.” Griffin also pledged to accelerate CEV development to minimize the gap between shuttle retirement and CEV availability.

NASA suffered a major setback in July when a large piece of insulating foam came off the shuttle’s external tank in the otherwise very successful return-to-flight mission. NASA once again had to ground the shuttle fleet, this time until sometime in 2006. Many called for immediate retirement of the shuttle fleet, but Griffin insisted that an orderly retirement of the shuttle fleet after completing a version of the international space station satisfactory to U.S. partners was a better course to follow.

After a summer of closely held studies by small tiger teams, NASA in mid-September spelled out an approach to replacing the shuttle with a shuttle-derived expendable launch vehicle, identified the basic features of the CEV it would ask the aerospace industry to build, and sketched the additional vehicles to be developed after 2010 to carry astronauts back to the Moon.

Griffin set out a policy that there would be no non-U.S. suppliers in the critical path for these program elements, thus making cooperation between the two U.S. contending teams for the CEV contract and potential international partners moot. With its focus on the means for sending people into space, the questions of why explore, and what humans will do on the Moon once they get there, were given secondary attention by NASA.

On the basis of another summer study, NASA also concluded that it should be possible to fly 19 more shuttle flights before the end of 2010; this would make it possible to launch all international elements of the space station , and also set aside one flight for a final Hubble servicing mission. NASA communicated this conclusion to its space station partners, but was met with skepticism that even that many more flights were possible.

Mike Griffin also gave high priority to making sure that NASA as an organization would be capable of implementing the program he had developed. His stated priority was restoring NASA to its Apollo-era technical excellence; he pursued that goal by deciding that most of the engineering and systems management for the exploration effort would be done in-house by NASA personnel and by beginning to downsize and reshape the NASA work force.

With its focus on setting the NASA internal house in order, NASA left its international partners uncertain of what their role in future exploration activities might be, given that they would be excluded from the major NASA human spaceflight developments of the coming decade. In the absence of open communication from NASA, they began to explore alternate alliances for the future.

As Act Two ended NASA submitted its budget request for 2007 to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), requesting an increase of almost 9 percent and for adequate funds in subsequent years to do all that it had been promising to its various constituencies. NASA had discovered as it prepared its request what had been glossed over in Act One — that the budget plan that accompanied the vision, with its too low estimates of the cost of shuttle operations in the years leading up to its 2010 retirement, had left it anywhere from $3 billion to $6 billion dollars short of what was needed.

The OMB staff reaction to NASA’s request was — not surprisingly — negative, since OMB had agreed to these artificially low estimates of shuttle costs. OMB suggested that in order to keep NASA’s budget within its assigned level, shuttle flights should be limited in number and the country’s international commitments with respect to the ISS thus be given limited significance.

By mid-November, Griffin found himself forced to indicate that his priority, unless the NASA budget were increased above the level proposed by OMB, would be to keep NASA’s science budget level at its fiscal year 2006 amount for the next five years in order to have the funds needed to fly the remaining 19 shuttle missions and to have the CEV ready for use by 2012. This was just the kind of choice between science and exploration that he had hoped to avoid.

Act Three, a work in Progress

Act Three will unfold in the coming weeks. At stake is whether the Bush administration is willing to live up to its 2004 call for a “sustainable” program of human and robotic exploration of the solar system, and will still support a balanced NASA space effort. Certainly the context within which NASA is operating today is different from that of two years ago, given the high costs of recovering from recent natural disasters and continuing conflicts overseas. But a sustainable policy must be able to withstand just these kinds of contextual fluctuations.

NASA is making its best case for sticking to the policies enunciated two years ago. In recent weeks, Mike Griffin has delivered a series of well-crafted speeches that lay out his strategy on how NASA plans to move forward with respect not only to the exploration vision, but also with respect to its science program and to engaging the international and commercial communities in NASA’s future. Given his focus on space transportation means in his first months at NASA , these are welcome indications of Griffin’s broader thinking. Meanwhile, he is pressing the case inside the administration for adequate resources to do the job he believes he was hired to do.

As the White House deliberates the policy and budgetary issues involved in setting a 2007 budget level for NASA, there are many contending forces at work. Members of Congress are making their views felt; it seems that they are more willing to provide NASA the funding it needs to carry out the administration’s announced space program than is the administration itself.

The scientific community is understandably unhappy about the prospect of a fixed budget for the next five years. Representatives of space station partners are letting the White House and the State Department know that they expect the United States to honor its commitments. The aerospace industry is wondering whether NASA will be allowed to move forward with its planned major procurements.

How the interactions among these forces will play out makes for fascinating theater for those of us who follow the policy-making process closely. But what is at stake makes this drama certainly more than just good Washington entertainment. President Bush in 2004 set out a bold long-range vision for space. What has emerged over the past year is a concrete proposal from NASA on what the nation’s future strategy should be in order to pursue that vision, and what means will be developed to execute that strategy. It is now up to the president and his associates to decide whether to accept, delay or reject that proposal.

Whatever the outcome, as the final curtain drops on this year’s space program theatrics, they have been remarkable. Year 2005 will be a hallmark in the evolution of America’s space program, as the country decides whether to retain its leadership position in space science and exploration.

John M. Logsdon is director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.